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(Just a note, this article was featured in our May 2019 Newsletter. Some references may not correspond with recent events. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

I have a confession to make: up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know a lot about permissions. Sure, I could explain the clause in a publishing contract where it states that the author is responsible for securing permissions from third parties for use of third-party material in the author’s books. But I kind of assumed (or hoped) that if it ever came to it, the publisher would walk the author through the actual process. Not so. So when one of my authors wanted to secure permissions for some song lyrics she wanted to include in her upcoming release, we ventured down the winding road together. Here is what I learned:

  • What do you need permission for? You need legal permission any time you want to quote or excerpt someone else’s work in your own. That can apply to anything from poetry to song lyrics and every magazine article or blog entry in between.
  • The concept of “fair use” is murky. Isn’t there a law that states that you can use a percentage of someone else’s work for free? Not really. As Jane Friedman so smartly points out in her post A Writer’s Guide to Permissions and Fair Use , there is no defining rule about how much of someone else work is “OK” to use without permission.  So your best bet is always to ask.
  • Your publisher really isn’t going to help you. Publishing contracts specify that the author is responsible for securing all necessary permissions, and they mean it. It is the author’s job to figure out who to reach out to regarding securing permissions. Don’t expect your publisher to have a list of record executives’ email addresses or standard forms to fill out for such an occasion. This part of the process can require quite a bit of leg work in terms of tracking down the right individuals. Side note: agents won’t necessity be able to help either. While I’m always happy to advocate for my clients, I do not have the necessary connections to move this process along.
  • There is a cost and it can be steep. Most of the people my author reached out wanted to know certain information such as print run and territory of distribution before calculating permission fees. They then based their fees accordingly, and they were notable. One of the terms I learned during this process was “favored nations,” which basically means that one party cannot be paid more than another. As it pertains to permissions, don’t think you’ll be able to strike a deal with a record company because you’re only using a few lines, for example, or that another company will give you a break because they like the premise of your story. The people you’re reaching out to are, in turn, advocating for their clients. They want to make sure that the content their clients made is respected in the marketplace, and that means fiscal compensation. And they pretty much have a going rate. The other thing to consider is that you have to pay regardless of how much money you’re making or if you’ve been paid your full advance or not.
  • Permissions live with your work. If your book takes off, know that permissions requests will follow you. So far, from what I’ve seen, costs are associated with the publisher’s proposed print run and are limited to the territories requested. That means that if your book sells over whatever your publisher initially projected, you will have to pay permissions fees again. Same goes for every foreign license (and there are some caveats depending on whether or not a foreign publisher intends to keep the lyrics in English). In sum, this is not a one-and-done thing.

So what can you do? Think about how important any excerpts are to your writing. Can you write around them? Mention them in passing? For example, reference a well-known chorus that readers will be sure to get, if we’re talking about music? Your other option is to search public-domain offerings that will fit the bill. Works in the public domain can be used without permission. 

Creative Commons Credit: F Delventhal

Here, in my neck of the woods, we’re heading into our eighth week of lockdown. The longer I’m in this new reality, trying to balance work with homeschool and family life, the more I’ve been pondering what types of stories this moment in history will give us. I’ve also being speaking with editors and my agent colleagues about what types of stories we’re looking for and what we’d be comfortable reading. The big truth is that everyone’s experiences are varying so vastly. We don’t see an end in sight, and without closure, can anyone pen a story right now that captures a universal truth? While a pandemic is ripe fodder for writers, when can one write about it, and how can it be written about? These are interesting questions with answers that will only come over time. All I can offer here is what types of stories I would and wouldn’t be interested in seeing at this time:

YES: Pandemic as inciting incident. I am excited to see stories that use the pandemic as a plot propeller—as a circumstance that, without it, the story (centered around a conflict not directly virus related) could not have happened.

  • Mystery and suspense: Your character is stuck inside, so now what? I’m thinking about Rear Window or The Girl On the Train narratives that can evolve only because circumstances set the characters on a certain path. What do you discover if you finally have the time to clean out your daughter’s room? Or your partner’s office? What do you learn if you’re spying on your neighbors all day? What if a restaurant-delivery person becomes obsessed with a family she regularly delivers to?
  • Romance: I’ve been hearing a lot about the idea of people forced to quarantine together, but also what if you and your office crush find yourselves having to come into work to keep the business running? Or what if your character takes a job as a grocery-delivery person and falls in love with someone they deliver to? What if your character is a teacher falling in love online with a homeschooling parent?


NO: Woe-is-me pandemic stories. I could not read anything that takes a glib approach to this time just as I can’t stand celebrities complaining about being stuck inside their mansions. I’m not alone here. This isn’t the time for stories about how much of an inconvenience this is. That approach will not win any fans.

NO: Science-based or speculative fiction about viral outbreaks. As mentioned above, I’d love to see stories that use the pandemic as a springboard for a plot that is not specifically about an outbreak. However, I am not interested stories in which an outbreak is the central conflict, i.e., outbreak thrillers featuring heroic scientists or politically motivated villains.

MAYBE BUT NOT RIGHT NOW: The defining story. Somewhere out there, a writer is composing the beginnings of a story that will define this moment for us. That will speak to us as a nation. That will make us feel seen. I can’t wait to read it. But it’s too soon. Defining stories require a matured perspective—and facts—that only time, distance, and due contemplation can provide. We don’t know how this will end or how it will impact us as a society in the long run, so hypothesizing about it now in fiction seems moot. In the meantime, keep a journal. Write down your experiences and your ideas for new novels. Capture it all now so that when the time is right, you’ll have what you need to work with.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Marco Verch

At some point during your publishing journey, it will seem like all you’re going is waiting. There’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait in publishing, and it’s hard to know what to do when you feel like you have nothing to do. Here are a few suggestions for how to pass the time:

1. Write Something. Ideally, something completely different. The best way to not dwell on the project that’s out with agents or editors is to get busy with new characters. Don’t write the second book in your planned series. Don’t rewrite the manuscript you just queried. Start a new project. Try out that idea that’s been kind of taking shape in the back of your head but that you think is way too off-brand for you. Even if you turn out to be right, every project hones your skills and makes you a better storyteller. You still have a few weeks of NaNoWriMo left!

2. Socialize. These moments of in-between are great opportunities to become the best literary citizen you can be. Part of being a successful author is being connected to your local publishing scene, no matter how small. Get out and network. Hit up a conference, a reading, a lecture series, or a local publishing drinks event. Not only could you have the opportunity to vent about the waiting with other writers, but you might also make some valuable connections for the next steps in the publishing process, such as asking for endorsement quotes.

3. Get Online. Waiting is also a great opportunity to get your social-media house in order. I’m a firm believer that writing should be your first priority, but if you’ve hit “the end” and sent that manuscript out into the world, you now have some time to focus on your professional online presence. Make sure you have the infrastructure set up for your social-media accounts as well as an author website or landing page, and start creating an online community for yourself by following and interacting with other writers.

4.  Read. If you’re someone who can’t read while they write, or if you can’t read within your genre while actively working on a project, then waiting for your agent or editor to get back to you is a great time to catch up on what’s recently been published. In addition to being an entertaining distraction, reading other authors might help you find new comp titles for your work or inspire you to diversify and write in a different genre.

Creative Commons Credit: Luca Florio

Pivot Like A Pro

It is a truth universally acknowledged by writers everywhere: every success in publishing is built on stacks of rejection letters. Authors by Agents. Authors by Editors. Agents by Editors. Part of that success is about being agile and knowing when to pivot, whether away from a project on submission or away from a long-running series. Think about pivoting if:

You’re not getting traction.You’ve been pitching your manuscript and not getting any requests, or the rejections just keep coming.

How to pivot:

  • Pitch. Think about your pitch first. Is there something about the story that you’re not playing up? Is there a better way to be positioning your work? Agents do this all the time. If a project doesn’t seem to be connecting, one of the first things we consider is how we’re positioning it. Switching up the pitch (playing up a relationship of note or an underlying mystery, for example) forces the reader to look for different elements in a story and opens up new avenues of connection.
  • Manuscript. Are you getting consistent feedback that something isn’t working or that something isn’t coming across? This might be a tough one to unearth in the world of form rejection letters, but if you’re concerned that something isn’t connecting, make sure to get to the bottom of it. If you’re receiving standard form rejections, seek out other sources: editors at conferences, contests, or a new writing group can help.

You can’t see the forest for the trees. This is the story you very desperately want to write, but you’ve been reworking it for so long you’re not sure if you have critical distance to see if it’s working any longer. How to pivot:

  • Clean slate. Sometimes the best inspiration comes when we put aside the unfixable and start from scratch. Most published authors got their agent with their third or fourth completed manuscript. Some of today’s bestsellers were the projects authors were working on while their agents were out on submission with something else. Try writing something completely different. It’s hard, especially when the idea in front of you has been with you for so long, but it’s worth it. You’re not letting the first one go, just giving it room to breathe.

Readership is dwindling. Series with recurring protagonists sound like bestseller gold, and they can be, but there is such a thing as jumping the shark in books. Typically, readership declines book to book in long-running series, and at some point it might be necessary to call it quits with a protagonist you’ve been writing into many books, but there are ways to keep your engaged audience coming back.

How to pivot:

  • Keep it fresh. Just because you’re working with the same protagonist doesn’t mean you have to keep writing the same book. Consider switching up POV or narrative voice or locale for the next installment.

The market shifts. You’ve been writing (fill in the blank: dystopian, cozy mystery, spy thriller, etc.), and suddenly they tell you there’s no market for it. How to pivot:

  • Rebrand. Market shifts happens all the time. A life-long career as an author is just that, life-long, so consider a lateral move to a different genre.

Creative Commons photo Credit: Ron Mader

It’s my first PitchWars as a featured agent and I did everything I could to get ready. I cleared the decks as much as possible, caught up on queries and submitted manuscripts and was waiting, coffee in hand, at 5 pm last Tuesday when the first requested manuscripts were set to drop in my inbox. An inbox full of professionally mentored manuscripts is like Christmas and your birthday all rolled into one as far as I’m concerned. But I knew it wouldn’t be smooth sailing. There were over 70 agents participating in this year’s ‘Wars, and we were battling it out over 50 Adult projects, 42 Middle-Grade offering, and 83 YA submissions. It was about as close as any of us would get to a IRL version of The Hunger Games.

For those unfamiliar with PitchWars, it an ingenious program that matches unpublished authors with published author mentors who work to hone a manuscript over the course of a few months and then present those projects to a group of invited agents for a first look. Why do agents love it? Simple—if editors are willing to spend more money on manuscripts that have been edited by agents (and we know they do), it stands to reason that manuscript that have been shepherd by published authors and agents will garner ever more attention in the market. As an added bonus, PitchWars classes create amazing groups of cheerleaders and readers for authors, which is a priceless asset on the journey to publication.

That first night of reading was like an agent slumber party over at NLA—we read, we iMessaged, we read some more. I called it quits around 11:30 pm and by the time I hit my desk the next morning, there were already projects with offers of representation out there. I know, right? How did those manuscripts do that, you may be wondering? And how realistic an experience is getting an offer of rep so quickly for a first-time author?

There were a handful of projects that got snapped up right away. These had the magic combination of stellar writing, pitch-perfect positioning, and a great hook/concept. PitchWars mentees know to be prepared for anything, from immediate offers to waiting. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what it was that made these project stand out. Here’s my take on the most successful offerings:

Positioning – The PitchWars madness begins during the agent showcase, where authors present a short pitch and excerpt for featured agents to respond to. The projects that got my attention were the ones that possessed compelling positioning sentences. This can be a mash-up (“Tarzan meets Six of Crows”) or a comp (“Perfect for fans of Liane Moriarty and Gillian Flynn”).

Hook/High Concept – As we’ve previously defined it, a high concept is a new twist on an established narrative trope; something that flips a known idea or story on its ear. The manuscripts that received the most requests contained the “It’s {familiar story line}…but {with a twist}” that got us thinking.

Killer Opening – One chapter. That’s what you have to get our attention. Agents are going to try to feel out as many projects as possible in a short amount of time in a situation like PitchWars. I can’t speak for everyone at NLA, but I was jumping in and out of manuscripts to get a sense of how they measured up. If it wasn’t holding my attention after one chapter, I’d move on. Check out Angie and Kristin’s advice here for opening scenes.

Voice – It’s that elusive thing that’s hard to define, but we all “know it when we see it.” The projects that really grabbed me—from contemporary romance to contemporary YA—were the ones that displayed a confident, consistent voice. Not surprisingly, a number of these were by long-time authors, which just goes to show that voice, like anything else, takes time to evolve.

As the adrenaline rush of running headfirst into PitchWars subsides, I found myself thinking about how strange this process must seem, especially for authors watching from the sidelines. PitchWars offers no guarantees, but it can be a game changer if you approach it with the right mindset. Of course, if you didn’t get into PitchWars, does everything I just said matter at all? Absolutely. I’m jumping back into my query inbox today and I’ll be taking all of these lessons with me.