This week, the New York Times started publishing a series of articles under the heading “Six Months In,” looking at what we know now (and are still waiting to learn) after half a year of confronting COVID-19. That got me thinking about my friends in the writing world. We’re six months in, and our favorite writing conferences and conventions have been canceled, postponed, or made virtual. Writing is a lonely endeavor anyway, and it seems it has become even lonelier.
Or has it?
All of us at NLA have participated in myriad online events in the last six months, from one-hour Q&As to multi-day virtual events complete with pitch appointments, critique roundtables, social rooms, and dozens of workshops keyed to various learning tracks. We’ve witnessed event organizers innovate in some pretty commendable ways. The occasional tech glitch and Zoom learning curve aside, it’s actually been pretty great.
But I want to hear from you—all of you writers out there who have participated in online writing events and communities in the past six months. In our new virtual world…
• Are you more involved with writing communities, less involved, or the same?
• Is pitching to an agent or editor online more stressful or less stressful than it is in person? Why?
• Are you connecting with the same folks you were connecting with in person, or have you branched out and networked with new folks?
• How has your critique group adapted in the age of COVID?
• What types of online events have attracted you to participate, and how did they catch your eye?
• What could online-event organizers do to improve writers’ experiences, or what types of things do you wish would be offered?
• Have you attended virtual author readings or book-launch events? If so, what’s worked? What hasn’t?
I want to hear from you! Leave a comment with your thoughts down below. Next month, I’ll report back on the virtual writing world through your eyes…six months in.
(Unfortunately, our newsletter redacted the email we included to receive your responses. Please use the comment section to share your thoughts with us!)
Throughout your story but especially in Act II—that yawning abyss between your story’s beginning and end sometimes referred to as “the swamp” or “the mushy middle”—your protagonist must fail. They must fail big. They must fail often. Why? Because if they’re not failing, they’re not trying.
Try-Fail Cycles Try-fail cycles are a great way to test the weight-bearing capability of a story’s structure. Often, a weak story—one likely to collapse under the scrutiny of discerning readers—lacks try-fail cycles. These are exactly what they sound like: a character faced with a problem formulates a plan, then carries out that plan (try), but they are outmatched, or an unforeseen obstacle pops up, and the attempt is unsuccessful (fail). They fall back, lick their wounds, consider the added threat of the new obstacle and the new stakes that have been raised, and formulate a new plan…thus launching the next try-fail cycle.
Try-Yes-But Cycles Not all try-fail cycles end in complete failure. The alternative is the try-yes-but cycle. Here, the protagonist carries out their plan, and some or all of their attempt is a success (yes); however (but), that success comes at a high cost, with some unforeseen and devastating consequence. This is the two steps forward, one step back effect, and while your protagonist might not have failed per se, the outcome still feels like a failure to readers because the stakes have been raised, the tables turned, and the jeopardy heightened.
Suspicion-Confirmation Cycles The enemy of try-fail and try-yes-but cycles is the suspicion-confirmation cycle, which is inherently passive and uninteresting. This happens when a protagonist has a suspicion that rather quickly, usually within a few pages and through very little action, gets confirmed. For example, the suspicion “I think Jack is the one who betrayed me” is confirmed in the next scene when the protagonist passively overhears Jack colluding with the bad guys.
This is not to say that your characters should never have suspicions or work to confirm them. On the contrary! But it is not uncommon for newer writers to construct entire manuscripts on suspicion-confirmation cycles in lieu of the other types of cycles. Having a suspicion is not the same thing as attacking a problem head-on or being forced to actively react to an opponent’s unexpected maneuverings. Know the difference. In your own manuscript:
• Be aware of how many scenes are largely dialogue or internal rumination about what your protagonist suspects, or that culminate with the articulation of a new suspicion.
• Be aware of how many of those suspicions turn out to be correct. Newer writers let their characters be correct most of the time, if not every time.
• Be aware of how soon after a suspicion is formed it is confirmed, and how soon after it is confirmed a new suspicion is formed. You might be stuck in the suspicion-confirmation cycle.
• Be aware of how hard you make your protagonist work to confirm a suspicion. Make it challenging. Make it active. Make it fraught with jeopardy. Make it come at a cost.
• Be aware of how many suspicion-confirmation cycles you’ve used in relation to how many of the other more active and interesting failure-based cycles you’ve used. In commercial fiction, you’ll be miles ahead of the field if you build your story’s structure on the latter, using the former sparingly.
This month, Nelson Literary Agency honors one of our own. Rebecca Taylor, our former literary assistant, recently celebrated the release of her debut women’s fiction title, HER PERFECT LIFE (Sourcebooks Landmark, June 2, 2020). We couldn’t wait to talk to her about it and share her words of wisdom and encouragement with you.
Congratulations on the release of HER PERFECT LIFE! Tell us a bit about the book.
It’s about two adult sisters, Eileen and Clare, and their very different lives. Eileen is an overwhelmed mother of three who is navigating a troubled marriage and financial insecurity. Clare is a world-famous, hugely successful novelist, living with a husband who worships her. At the beginning of the book, Eileen learns that Clare has killed herself despite her outwardly perfect life. Eileen flies to Clare’s cliffside mansion north of San Francisco in hopes of learning why her sister would take her own life. The book is told from the perspectives of the two sisters, past and present.
As a writer, what surprised you the most about working for a literary agency?
First, the data management required for even a single author can be tremendous. For example, think of one author with five titles, each of which sells into twenty foreign-language markets. That’s 100 contracts and revenue streams that must be monitored and tracked, not to mention sales numbers, manuscript files in their various stages of drafts, edits, and final-final versions, marketing info and data for each author, each title, each market… Way more work goes on behind the scenes than most authors even begin to imagine. The management of all that information is exponential. Because of this, agents really do need to LOVE and believe in a title before deciding to invest all this very real sweat equity trying to get a book into the world.
Second, even if a book is well written and an agent believes in it enough to take it on, it’s far from guaranteed that book will connect with a publisher. And even if it does make it to the shelves, it may not find an audience.
Finally, most authors do not read their contracts. Or, if they do read them, they don’t ask questions about language they don’t understand.
How did working for a literary agency inform your writing?
Working for a literary agency made me more aware of the industry as a whole, not just what I felt passionate about writing in the moment. I had always heeded the advice about writing the story you wanted to tell, the story you’re passionate about. With my five YA books, that is exactly what I did—and I was never able to find a traditional publisher for those books. That awareness helped me to think more critically about a project before I began writing it. It also helped me focus on what sort of book I would like to be writing not just next week, but next decade. What genre would give me the flexibility to tackle new ground while still staying true to my love of creating character-driven works? Women’s fiction was the answer for me.
After you published five YA books, HER PERFECT LIFE is your debut women’s fiction. Tell us more about what prompted the switch. Will you continue to write YA?
First off, my reading habits changed. I’ve always read widely, but as a reader, I found I was losing interest in the YA market. This, I am certain, was because my own children were moving into their teenage years. As a parent, I found it increasingly difficult to get into the teen headspace in a way that would genuinely resonate with a teen audience. As a mom navigating the parental world of setting expectations, defining boundaries, and taking away privileges, I found I was a living, breathing antagonist to that entire shelf space. Teen-centric story ideas stopped lighting up my creative centers—that well ran dry. But I did, suddenly, have a lot to say about women and mothers. Writing women’s fiction was a transition that made both logical and emotional sense to me. As for writing more YA in the future…who knows? But it’s not something I plan on or can even envision doing at this point.
As a full-time school psychologist and busy mom, how do you carve out the time you need to write?
It is definitely getting easier now that the kids are older. Much less feeding, dressing, and entertaining is required for teens than two-year-olds. At this point, it’s mostly balancing writing with working. One benefit of working in public schools is that I have plenty of time to write during the summer months—even if the warm weather does make focus far more challenging. During the school year, I generally get up around four a.m., so I have a couple of hours to write before work. I’ve tried writing after work or before bed, but I’m basically brain dead by that point in the day. I prefer to go to bed early and get up early.
Do you have a writing community or support system? If so, how has that helped you work toward and achieve your goals?
I have belonged to a few different professional writing organizations, both local and national, over the years. Through these, I have met many wonderful writers and taken countless classes that have both inspired me and helped me improve my writing. But by far, the most helpful support system has been my fellow writer girlfriends. When we can make it work, we take retreats together and focus on writing all day long. Then, in the evenings, we come together to eat dinner, drink wine, and talk, talk, talk. More regularly, we try to get together for brunch at least every few months. I love and cherish this time we spend together.
What are you working on now?
A second book of women’s fiction that is due to my publisher very, very soon. I’m nearing the end of the first draft, but I have found it difficult to focus over these past few months. I’m hoping to have it finished by the end of June, if not sooner.
What advice do you have for writers who are working toward landing an agent or their first traditional-publishing deal?
The waiting and rejection, rejection, rejection can be hard. So hard. But realize this: Even when you connect with that agent and finally sell that book, the waiting and rejection do not end. They just look different and tend to be more public. Get as comfortable as you can on publishing’s lumpy couch and do your best to keep writing through all the discomfort.
Celebrate the small successes along the way.
And finally, if you ever feel like you’re at the end of your rope with this business, like you just can’t take the rejection anymore and you really want to quit—then quit. I cannot recommend quitting writing and the pursuit of publishing more. I have quit twice in despair and frustration. Obviously, I crawled back to try again. But it was only when I came back after quitting for the second time that I truly understood I would continue to write for the intrinsic pleasure even if there was never going to be any external reward for my efforts. Once I realized that about myself, I was able to enjoy the process again and loosen my grip on trying to make publishing happen. And eventually, it did happen—eighteen years after I started writing my very first book.
(Just a note, this post is from our archives. Some references and links may be from past years.)
Every six months, you get an envelope from your agent. You tear it open, take out the enclosed check and royalty statement, and glance at the numbers on both. You shrug and mutter, “Guess that looks about right.” Then you toss the statement on your to-be-filed pile at the back of your closet, endorse the check, and head to the bank.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many published authors I’ve talked to at conferences who don’t give their royalty statements much of a glance. Why? Because they don’t know what they’re looking at. “Dammit, Jim, I’m a writer, not an accountant,” they say (or something along those lines). “Besides, isn’t that what I pay my agent to manage for me?”
News flash! Like you, many agents consider themselves word people—not numbers people—and your royalty statements are just as baffling to them as they are to you.
This means that the buck, quite literally, stops with you. Have a conversation with your agent about the level of support he or she is providing when it comes to combing through your statements and making sure you’re getting paid everything you’re owed.
Every year, we at Nelson Literary Agency recover thousands—sometimes tens of thousands—of unpaid dollars on behalf of our clients, simply because we audit their royalty statements.
Does this mean that publishers are nefarious, knowingly cheating authors out of a few bucks here and there to improve their own bottom lines? In our experience, no. (In fact, not all errors we find are made in the publisher’s favor!) Every error we’ve called to a publisher’s attention has immediately resulted in the issuing of a corrected statement and, when called for, a check covering the difference.
Without naming names, here are some examples of errors we’ve recently found on our clients’ royalty statements:
1. Unpaid royalties of approximately $5,000 because the publisher had applied a $10,000 advance against the author’s earnings when the actual contracted and paid advance had been only $5,000. This means the author had actually earned out—though the statement said otherwise—and was now owed nearly $5,000 in earned royalties.
2. Unpaid royalties of approximately $4,200 because the publisher’s accounting department missed the fact the author’s contract contained a royalties escalator. What’s that? A royalties escalator increases the author’s royalty rate in steps, based on units sold. For instance, a contract might specify that the author will earn 10% for the first 5,000 copies sold, 12.5% for the next 5,000 copies sold, and 15% for all copies sold thereafter. In this case, the author had sold about 12,500 copies of a hardcover edition priced at $16.99, but she had earned only 10% for all of those copies. Not one, but two escalators had been missed.
3. Unpaid royalties of approximately $7,300 because the publisher sold nearly 6,500 copies of a $17.99 hardcover edition at “high discount,” even though Agent Kristin had ensured that the author’s contract limited the number of copies the publisher was allowed to sell at high discount. What does that mean? When publishers sell copies of your book at higher-than-usual discounts, it’s common that the author’s contract will specify that she will earn “one-half the prevailing royalty rate” on those copies. Because Agent Kristin had limited the publisher’s high-discount sales, this author should have earned 12.5% on those particular 6,500 copies, but she earned only 6.25%, and we were able to recover the difference. (By the way, does your agent understand this and negotiate your contract’s high-discount clause in your favor?)
Dear Authors, the only way to protect your assets is to do the math. Join me July 30, from 6:00 pm to 8:30 pm, for my Royalty Statements Auditing Workshop, a live webinar sponsored by Nelson Literary Agency. Hope to see you then!