Pub Rants

Category: Writing As A Career

Whenever a new story breaks about an established literary agent behaving badly, I cringe. Although I’m not personally responsible, it’s another black-mark moment for this profession that I love. So what responsibility do agents have to protect writers, and what can writers new to the publishing world do to protect themselves?

The answer is surprisingly simple: be armed with knowledge. Agents with integrity should provide information in a public sphere whenever possible, and many do via Twitter, blogs, and newsletters. Writers should gather all they can but also know that things change. Be kind to yourself, as it might not be possible to have “known better” if an agent partnership does not go as planned. 

As an agent who has spent the last fifteen years putting information out there for writers (since I started Pub Rants in 2006), I hope to arm you with info about agent types you might want to avoid. By the way, I highly recommend that writers looking for an agent have a subscription to Publishers Marketplace, where you can do your research. A lot of heartache might be avoided with a little time spent there.

The Schmagent

This type of agent is easy to define. This scammer pretends to be an agent, charges fees for everything a normal agent just does as part of the job (i.e., reading fees, submission fees, marketing fees, etc.). The red-flag word here is “fees.” When writers spot that, it’s an instant tell that the agent isn’t legit.  In 2013, Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware and I were expert witnesses for a lawsuit to take down a scammer masquerading as a literary agent. This person fleeced unsuspecting writers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. (It’s lucrative, which is why there are so many schmagents out there.) It’s a bit like whack-a-mole, but we put this one out of biz. By the way, Victoria is a tireless advocate for writers, and she doesn’t get enough props for everything she has done and is currently doing. Send her a note, or better yet, buy one of her books. It’s thankless, time-consuming work, and she is an amazing human being. In the internet age, this type of agent might be easy to spot, but scammers still snare unsuspecting writers all the time. If this describes your experience, don’t spend time berating yourself. Scammers are pros at what they do. 

The Hobbyist

This type of agent might mean well, but they pursue this profession for the “celebrity” of the job. This might not make them a bad agent per se, but it also means they probably aren’t a great agent either. How do you spot one? Well, this can be tough. The Hobbyist might have a great presence on social media, but if you dig in to the research (thank you, Pub Marketplace), the Hobbyist will not have a strong track record of sales or will only do deals with small presses or for digital rights only. And so I’m clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing deals with small and digital publishers. I’ve done many in my career, but they should be balanced with regular/bigger deals to Big Five publishers and the well-established indie publishers. 

The Greenie

Some agents might have integrity but are simply too green (and don’t have access to mentorship) to be able to advocate for a client.

Back in 2008, there was an agent who racked up many six-figure deals under her own shingle. She came on the scene quickly, and after two years, exited quickly and without warning. She looked hot on paper with all those deals, but her clients were signing boilerplate publishing contracts with no negotiated changes. This agent had no prior experience at another agency, and it was a nightmare for those clients later in their careers. 

For the Greenie, the key is to look at the agency itself. How long has that agency has been in business? What is the agency’s track record as a whole? This will help you determine whether this newer agent is in a place the receive guidance from a more seasoned agent. 

The Blindsider

This is the agent that all the research in the world can’t predict. This agent might have a terrific beginning to a career, and then that career publicly derails. You will never be able to spot this one coming. Writers, go into an agent partnership expecting the best. But if the worst happens, try and let go of any self-blame. You did the best you could with the information available when forming the partnership. 

Also keep in mind that some agents are acting with integrity but might simply be a bad fit for certain authors. Communication styles or personalities don’t mesh. My client Courtney Milan tackled this convo recently on Twitter, so give it a look in case you find it helpful. 

As an agent, I’ve put many an article out there trying to assist writers in arming themselves with knowledge. I did a whole series of articles on what makes a good agent well as an article on 5 Questions Authors Don’t Ask but Should when considering an offer of representation.

One final comment. As an agent, I wish for no more black marks on my beloved profession, but I’m also practical. Another news article will probably be just around the corner. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Nenad Stojkovic

How to Pitch a Character-Driven Novel

When it comes to pitching and querying, it’s hard for writers of introspective, character-driven novels not to feel like writers with action-forward novels have an edge. If you’ve written a quieter story (nary an explosion or shootout in sight), how can you pitch it in such a way that it will pique an agent’s interest?

Focus on arcs. Most successful stories have two arcs: an external arc (what’s happening in the world around your protagonist) and an internal arc (what’s happening inside your protagonist’s head and heart). If your story leans more heavily on its internal arc, remember that arc means change. Ask yourself: (a) what is my character like at the beginning, (b) what is my character like at the end, (c) are those two states different enough that readers will be satisfied that a meaningful change or transformation took place, and (d) what happened in the story to force that change to occur? Try framing your pitch in terms of character change. In addition, the answer to (d) is probably where your external arc lies, and getting your external arc into your pitch, too, will help make it stronger.

Focus on conflict. Conflict is the engine of story. Assuring an agent in your pitch that your character-driven story delivers enough conflict to propel a whole novel from start to finish is key. Remember that motivated conflict is always more compelling than circumstantial conflict. Easy to overlook are pitches for stories that can be summed up “watch as my character struggles to overcome hardship.” Hardship is circumstantial. It’s stuff that could happen to anyone. But motivated conflict is pressed upon your protagonist by at least one other character who has an agenda—and that’s far more engrossing than mere circumstance.

If you do write a “watch as my character struggles to overcome hardship” story, make sure whatever they do is so flagrantly audacious and outside the norm that we readers are fascinated and can’t look away. That’s a conflict-breeds-conflict story, which often features humorous escalation and tends to do well when told in a comedic or darkly comedic tone.

Focus on voice and prose. An introspective story must deliver more than a brooding character sitting alone in a room thinking—that is, it must still be a story. The writing style of a deep-dive-into-character story is just as important as a meaningful arc and propulsive conflict. Your readership isn’t looking for explosions, but they’re looking for something—often to be swept up and away by a book that is a transformative reading experience in and of itself. An upmarket voice or artful, literary prose can step up to the mic in place of a muted external arc. Demonstrate in your query as well as in your sample pages (if an agent so requests) that your voice and prose are capable of sharing the workload of driving a whole novel from start to finish. When readers get the sense they are in the presence of literary mastery, they’ll gladly follow you to your last page…and into your next book, too.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Natalia Medd

Achieving Writing Goals

This month, we asked three NLA authors to give some tips on how they achieve their writing goals.

If you set a writing goal, what are two tips to achieve it? If not, what is something that you do instead?

Alison Hammer, author of You & Me & Us

I’m the type of person who writes things on my to-do list that I’ve already done, just so I can have the satisfaction of crossing it off. I take the same approach when it comes to goal setting.

While I admire people who set stretch goals for themselves, I find I’m much more successful when I have smaller, more achievable goals.

One of my favorite examples of this is a good friend who set a goal to open her manuscript each and every day. She didn’t have to write a single word to meet her goal—but most days, she did. After all, the manuscript was already open and ready for her.

I personally have a goal to write every single day. I believe in the daily writing habit so much that I started a Facebook support group for women writers called the Every Damn Day Writers. Some days that means writing for ten minutes, others I set a word-count goal anywhere from 250 to 500 words or 1,600 words if it’s November and I’m NaNo-ing.

Whatever goal I set, I just make sure that I’m setting myself up for success.

Miranda Asebedo, author of A Constellation of Roses

It’s pretty much impossible for me to dedicate an entire 8:00 to 5:00 day just to writing, so I schedule chunks of time when I know I can be my most productive, and I stick to them no matter what. For example, pre-Covid, one of my “chunks” was from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm every day while my kids were in after-school activities. I’ve gotten a lot of writing done in ballet studios and my car while waiting for them! Headphones are a must for this, but once it becomes a routine, it’s amazing how your brain just switches on to writing-mode without any big pre-writing rituals or anything.

My other tip is a reward system. If I hit a certain word count on schedule, I get to spend some time with the book I’ve been dying to read or the next episode in my Netflix queue that night. It always works!

Reese Eschmann, author of Etta Invincible

When I’m working toward a goal, the thing that helps me the most is to find someone to help keep me accountable. These days that means texting, Zooming, joining critique groups, and scheduling writing sprints with friends, but I’m looking forward to a time in the near future where I can sit across from a writing partner at a coffee shop again!

My second-best tip is that I’ve found that when I’m beginning to get overwhelmed, setting a time goal instead of a production goal (i.e. “I will spend one hour with this project” rather than “I will write 500 words”) takes some of the pressure off and allows me to get ­into a more relaxed, creative mindset! 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Dave Herrmann

In fiction craft, it’s a nearly universal struggle for writers to keep track of their antagonists. (If you don’t struggle with this, count yourself lucky. If you do, never fear! You’re not alone, and I think this will help.)

First, note that keeping track of your antagonist is different from developing your antagonist. Development is related to character, but keeping track—knowing where your antagonist is and what they’re doing and thinking every moment they are not on the page—is related to plot. This is the piece I want to dive into in this two-part article.

Before we can learn strategies that help us keep track of our antagonists, though, we have to know what type of antagonists we have, whether they are the right type of antagonists for our genres, and whether they are the direct cause of major havoc in our heroes’ lives. To that end, here is your assignment for this month:

Identify which type of antagonist you have. Is your antagonist a villain/monster, a force, or an opposition character? In Cast Away, the island (man versus nature) and crushing desolation (man versus self) are the antagonistic forces that drive our hero to act. In Good Will Hunting, the kind, insightful therapist (Robin Williams) is far from a villain or monster, yet he’s the opposition character who forces our troubled protagonist to change for the better. Know which type of antagonist you’ve got behind the wheel of your story’s central conflict.

Evaluate whether your antagonist is genre appropriate. The bulk of “good” (successful, memorable, meaningful, etc.) stories, regardless of genre, have both an internal/thematic/growth arc and an external/action arc. (The idea that all stories can be classified as either “character-driven” or “plot-driven” is poppycock.) The opposition your hero experiences in these two realms may or may not be embodied by different antagonists. Regardless, let your genre tell you which antagonist should get more energy in your story.

For example, the hero of a police procedural is trying to catch a criminal (the antagonist of the external/action arc), but he’s also getting flack from his captain, who keeps telling him he needs to straighten up and play by the rules (the antagonist of the internal/thematic/growth arc). Which antagonist are thriller readers more interested in? It ain’t the captain! So give the criminal more energy, regardless of whether you give the criminal a point of view. (We’ll discuss multi-POV stories that give voice to our antagonists next month, in Part II.)

In a romance, the love interests serve as opposition characters for each other’s internal/thematic/growth arcs, which are of greater interest to the reader. The antagonist of a romance’s external/action arc (like the heartless land developer who intends to raze the beloved small-town inn our love interests have a stake in saving) is not the antagonist readers showed up to watch. So give the opposition moments between the two love interests more energy.

Know your genre, and know whether the antagonist to whom you’ve given the most energy in your manuscript is the one that will satisfy your genre’s readers.

Analyze the top five scenes in your manuscript in which your hero is the most unsettled. What is the source of that tension, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, sorrow, regret, anger, etc.? Directly or indirectly, it had better be something an antagonist said or did. If your protagonist is repeatedly experiencing all sorts of intense feelings as a result of circumstances they were powerless to prevent (an electrical house fire, a cheating spouse, the decline of a parent’s health, the loss of a job due to downsizing, etc.), then you are probably still trying to figure out what your story is. Or if you even have a story. That’s because while a life-changing event makes for a serviceable plot catalyst or inciting incident, heaping circumstantial suffering on a character for three hundred pages is not story. Story happens when compelling, motivated opposition happens—and compelling, motivated opposition is exactly what antagonists in fiction exist to provide.

What’s next? Once you’ve worked through these three things related to your story, you’ll be ready for Part II (coming in January): techniques for keeping track of your antagonist. Knowing what your antagonist is up to behind the scenes will, as a matter of course, amp up your story’s tension; make your conflict more believable and immediate; keep your protagonist on their toes and force them to react in compelling ways; and raise the stakes. See you next month!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Tall Chris

Do You Know Where Your Antagonists Are? (Part II)

Imagine the opening of a contemporary YA fantasy manuscript. The heroine is fleeing through a forest at night, chased by a hulking, hairy hellhound with sharp claws and sharper teeth. The heroine trips over a log and breaks her leg. As the beast closes in, the heroine, dizzy with pain and fear, loses consciousness. Chapter two opens with “One Month Later.” The heroine is comfortable in her own bed, a cast on her leg, and she’s ruminating: What did the beast want? Why was it chasing me? Will it come back? How will I defend myself?

This is an extreme (but true—this was submitted by a writer I worked with many years ago) case of a writer losing track of her antagonist. Imagine: The hellhound finds his quarry lying injured and unconscious on the forest floor, and thinks, “Poor thing. I’ll give her time to recover so when I chase her again, she has a fighting chance”?

Antagonists do not cease to exist when your hero’s attention is elsewhere. If your antagonist has time to lean, he has time to be mean.

You might think this is a rookie mistake, but we see disappearing antagonists all the time, and not just from new writers. Multi-published, award-winning authors lose track of their antagonists, too. Or finish a manuscript only to realize the antagonist was an eleventh-hour plot device who wasn’t a significant operator in Acts I or II. If you gave some thought to last month’s article, you’re well on your way to avoiding this trap. Here are some things to try now:

If you’re a plotter, try a two-column approach. Column one is what your hero is doing in each scene; column two is what the antagonist is doing during the same period of time. Awareness of your antagonist’s behind-the-scenes machinations will necessarily affect your hero’s own reactions, analyses, interactions, and emotions.

If you’re a pantser, finish your first draft. Then write a scene-by-scene summary. Now do the two-column exercise. How is your antagonist moving closer to his goal every step along the way? How is he motivated by his perception that your hero in an obstacle?

Write a synopsis of your novel from your antagonist’s point of view.

If your second act is sagging (ah, the mushy middle!), get your antagonist on the page. Make him more active. Give him more complexity as a character. Set a ticking clock for him.

Hold your timeline sacred. Writers whose stories move around in time often have the greatest challenge when it comes to tracking characters. Whether it’s a dual-timeline story or a single-timeline story that unfolds over a long period and regularly skips ahead (“three days later…,” “the following week…,” “after a month…,” etc.), remember that the same amount of time must pass for all characters. We see lots of manuscripts that violate this and create what we call “temporal confusion”—and when this happens, characters start dropping off the radar. For your own reference (not necessarily for the finished book), date and timestamp every scene to keep track.

If the antagonist is one of your POV characters and the reader knows all along he’s the bad guy, you’ve got a couple options. If you’re in first person, don’t hold back. The point of choosing first person is to allow readers inside a character’s head. Take us deep into his dark, twisted psyche, or create empathy by developing his emotionally complex backstory, or both. On the other hand, if you want to set up a twist or reveal by withholding from the reader certain things your antagonist knows or plans to do, then you’re better off choosing third person. Either way, giving your antagonist POV chapters can shed interesting light on your hero.

If you’re writing a single-POV story from the POV of a villain or antihero, remember that opposition is the engine of story. There will still be opposition characters gumming up the works for him, so those are the characters whose movements you’ll need to track.

If the antagonist’s identity is a third-act reveal, then scrutinize everything that came before. What conflicts drive each scene? What conflict drives the central story question you set up in Act I and developed in Act II? Is it clear to the reader how all prior conflict relates to the antagonist’s newly revealed goal and motivation? Did you give readers a fair shake by planting clues that now point to what your antagonist has been doing for three-quarters of your novel? And does the reader understand why the antagonist didn’t just make himself known to your hero back in Act I?

  • If the prior conflicts your hero faced are largely circumstantial (dumb luck that could happen to anyone),
  • if they affect other characters with more oomph (stakes) than they affect your hero, or
  • if they return too often to nebulous fear and confusion (your hero spends too many scenes in the “scary, mysterious things are happening and I don’t know what’s going on” headspace)…

…then your plot probably needs work. Start by tracking your antagonist.

Knowing what your antagonist is up to behind the scenes does not mean your other characters or your readers need to know. Master storytellers hold all the cards and decide who gets to know what and when. However you choose to do it, make sure your antagonist is a card you play often!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Dejan Krsmanovic

(Just a note, this article was featured in our November 2020 Newsletter. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

305 = The number of days from when I submitted a client manuscript to when I received the response from the editor. 

Ten months. That’s a long time. You’d think I’d be upset or frustrated, but honestly, this is a love letter to that editor—and you know who you are. 

During this crazy Covid year, I’m sending this heartfelt acknowledgement into the world to her. That response, regardless of how late it arrived, is a gift that I can give to my author client. It’s the gift of closure—an assurance that my author’s novel was read and considered. All during a time when editors are scraping together time to work between juggling family, kids, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, sick parents or relatives, and who knows what else. 

So thank you, dear editor. Most sincerely. Your response was just lovely to have—even though it was a pass.

Most editors who flubbed a submission would slink into the night, never responding. I would have sighed and added them to my “do not submit” list. (And yes, agents have a black-hole list, and once you’re on it, editors, it’s hard to gain our trust again.)

To editors who might be reading this and might have a similar situation hiding in your submission closet—bite the bullet and send that letter to the agent. We will greatly respect you for doing it. Just trust me on this. 

Junior editors, the best advice I can give to you is this: don’t ghost agents. Always respond. Even if the note is short and sweet. We’ll get it. As an established agent, I truly enjoy trying out submissions to newer editors who are looking to make their name and reputation. But I’m also finding that ghosting is happening more and more, and that some editors just don’t respond at all.

It’s going to be hard to land the good stuff, the next New York Times bestselling client, if you’re on agents’ “no send” lists.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: One Way Stock

I wanted to chat this month about something that happens quite frequently in fiction (both published and unpublished), something I’ve dubbed “miraculous knowing.” This is when answers or solutions conveniently occur to a character at key plot moments. It tends to manifest thusly:

• They didn’t know how they knew. They just knew.
• She felt it in her bones. This was the place.
• He sensed it deep with his soul, so deep that he was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that he knew exactly what had happened to the woman.
• I had a bad feeling. I knew I was being watched.

Writers of all stripes use this technique all the time. And you can too! But I’d caution you to use it sparingly. When instinct, intuition, and insight get overused—or used in place of the development of a character’s keen intellect, observation, analysis—it becomes “miraculous.” When a character’s knowing is too miraculous too often, readers disengage and stories fall apart.

Humans are intuitive, instinctive, insightful beings. We’re animals. Our survival drive makes us reactive to vibes others are giving off, to that cold prickle at the backs of our necks, to hunches that danger lurks nearby. We intuit other things as well: when someone is lying, how to perform a task we’ve never done, what’s motivating a loved one’s mood or behavior, and so on. Therefore, it stands to reason that characters in fiction would also experience these types of intuitive moments, right?

Sure. However, in fiction, it’s not quite that simple. The human brain demands a different sort of logic from a story (which has a contained beginning, middle, and end) than it does from reality. When a character “senses” or “just knows” more than one crucial piece of information (maaaaaby two) over the course of a novel, that often signals one of three things: incomplete character development, limp plotting, or false tension.

Incomplete Character Development. If you’re writing in a speculative genre, you need to set up the rules. Does everyone in your world have extrasensory capabilities? Only some? Only one? What are the rules? Limitations? Costs? If you haven’t set up for the reader that your character is capable of heightened intuition (and under which circumstances they can call upon it, and what they’ve gained or lost in their lives as a result of this ability, etc.), then even one episode of miraculous knowing can come off feeling like a cheat.

Limp Plotting. Too much miraculous knowing in your manuscript might mean your plot’s in trouble. Look for opportunities to layer in clues that your character will encounter well ahead of the big plot moment when you need them to Realize The Thing. In other words, give them blue and yellow early on so that when they later see green, the reader buys in. Know that any clues you add in are stimuli that your character must respond to in some way in the moment (even if it’s just to think, “Huh, that’s odd”), which might affect how they decide to proceed, which might alter your plot.

False Tension. When a writer suspects they don’t have enough meaty, plot-driving conflict in their story, they sometimes throw in some miraculous knowing to give the illusion of tension. Here are some examples of false-tension scenarios we see in slush manuscripts:

• “She had a bad feeling about this guy”…but the guy doesn’t end up doing anything bad, affecting the plot, working against her, or even showing up again for the rest of the novel.
• “The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. It felt like someone was watching him”…but it turns out no one was watching him, or someone was watching him, but the watcher doesn’t have any plot-related reason to have been watching him.
• “They both felt it from the tops of their heads to the soles of their feet: going into that warehouse was a very bad idea”…but it’s never revealed what they think is inside the warehouse, or what they’re worried will happen to them (stakes!) if they enter.

It’s okay for a character to act on instinct, intuition, or flashes of insight. But if they’re saved too often by “suddenly I miraculously Knew The Thing,” that’s too easy. Think of miraculous knowing as an internal deus ex machina. Can you use it? Sure. But, use it sparingly. Avoid using it because you’re rushing to wrap up a particular scene, sequence, or story. And make sure that if you do use it, that there’s a plot-related payoff. In other words, avoid false tension.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: uberof202 ff

Books That Go Bump in the Night

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

Happy October, Friends! This has always been my favorite time of year. I love sweaters and scarves and fall leaves and pumpkin spice. I love the chill in the air…but what I love even more is a good chill down my spine. So horror writers? To celebrate this most wonderful time of the year, this one’s for you: here are three things we at NLA look for in horror submissions.

Literary or upmarket prose. We’re unlikely to request anything that leans too heavily on cheap scares, gratuitous violence, or gore porn. But send us a more cerebral, psychologically challenging work that demonstrates the tense, suspenseful, unsettling, atmospheric slow-burn of masterful horror writing, and you’ll definitely get our attention. Read 100 reviews or blurbs for bestselling horror novels and count how many times the words “tension” and “suspense” are used. So much of a writer’s ability to bring tension and suspense to the page lives in their writing style and voice. In the horror space, we’d love to see the next big crossover project—the one publishers are going to release in hardcover, the one booksellers are going to set out on their front-of-store displays because the writing is so artful it has the potential to capture readers who “don’t read horror” as well as those who do. 

Premise. There’s no shortage of gorgeous, voicey prose in the slush pile, but a solid, unique, fresh, high-concept premise? That’s rare. This is where being well-read in your genre is so important. Know what’s already been done and by whom. A query that hits me with a premise I’ve never encountered, one that makes me think how in the world is the writer going to pull that off?—you can bet a query like that is going to get me to read the sample pages. Many a horror premise is often built on a corporeal fear that, when confronted, leads to some sort of psychological disintegration: being buried alive, abducted, trapped, imprisoned, or tortured; being accused of something you’re innocent of; getting lost; being chased; encountering any supernatural beast or force…the list goes on. Plenty of great horror plays on more than one type of fear. But premise can also be built on a real horror, like slavery, say, and then amplified or twisted in some way. Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation explores an alternate post-Civil War world in which slavery has been abolished—but when the dead soldiers rise up off the battlefield as zombies, the new American government forces former slaves to train as zombie fighters, claiming they have a natural immunity to zombie bites (which everyone knows is a lie). So Dread Nation offers us the horror of both a real and an imagined-but-plausible injustice to grapple with, as well as the external threat of zombies. Rather brilliant.

Plot. It’s such a disappointment for an agency reader to get halfway through a manuscript that’s artfully written and that promises a cool, unique premise, only to realize the author is a little lost in the weeds when it comes to plot and structure. Plot is hard, but I firmly believe that anyone who devotes themselves to learning it, can. Start with Story Genius by Lisa Cron and Anatomy of Story by John Truby. For horror specifically, have you honored your contract with your readers by building speculative elements and conflicts that are uniquely creeptastic but that don’t strain their willingness to suspend their disbelief? Have you avoided falling back on deus ex machina? Have you developed complex characters in physical and/or psychological distress—or have you made the threat of that distress terrifyingly palpable for readers?

Prose. Premise. Plot. Any manuscript, regardless of genre, that delivers all three is definitely a manuscript we want to see. Happy Halloween!

Creative Commons Credit: Kamaljith K V

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

I’ve been preparing for a conference where I’ll be presenting on plot structure and voice, among other things, and, in getting ready, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes an author a cut above the rest. What is that special X-factor? The je ne sais quoi that can elevate someone with good technical skills to an expert writer?

We all know writing is a difficult craft to master and that publishing is a hard business to break into. We all know how impossible it can seem to write something totally fresh and new when stories have existed from the beginning and have been told and retold and retold again. And yet. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a story that surprises and delights you. Despite the fact that it seems every story has been told, new novels are published every year that prove otherwise. (Have you read Where the Crawdads Sing? That book is a work of art!)

I’m a big Brené Brown fan. In fact, I have a copy of Daring Greatly sitting right here on my desk as I write this piece. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do! It’s a great guide for how to approach your own life, but beyond that, I’ve found that Brown’s work on vulnerability is also the key to the X-factor of writing. The thing that makes you special, that makes you different from every other writer, is the fact that you are, well, you. Remember that as you embark on your writing journey.

Here are some things you can do or think about to ensure you’re writing in your unique way:

Write what you know (i.e. Know Thyself). I think this is one of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice out there. To me, write what you know doesn’t mean you can only write your own life again and again and again. Not by a long shot! Write what you know means that you should connect with the many depths and shades of your emotional truths and put them on the page. It doesn’t matter if the truth appears in a galaxy far, far away or in a contemporary setting—it is the internal conflict a character is forced to grapple with and the growth they experience that keep readers coming back for more. If the emotional core of a novel feels visceral and real, readers will connect with it.

The universal is in the specific. As humans, we are all connected by common experiences, feelings, challenges. That’s what makes empathy and compassion possible. When a novel is truly engrossing, readers actually physically experience what the characters are experiencing—this happens on a neurological level. Trust that, no matter your character’s background, religion, sexuality, race, etc., readers have the capacity to connect. Then, rather than trying to write a story that will please everyone, focus on writing a story that will please you. Let your characters have flaws, quirks, strange interests, etc. What makes you unique is the eyes you see the world through. Let that come out in your narrative. The more you hone in on emotional details, the deeper you dive, the more specific you get, the more your characters and story will feel real, and the more readers will connect.

Write what brings you joy. One fundamental truth in life and in publishing is that things are always changing. What was trending two years ago isn’t trending now. The world moves along, and we are forced to move with it. Because of that, it is important to stay on top of what is happening in the book world and to be aware of where the successes in your genre are, but it is equally important not to write to a trend because, chances are, by the time you’ve finished writing your trendy book, the next trend will already have come along. Because of that, the most important thing is that you write a novel that you want to spend time with, that gives you creative pride, and that feels meaningful to you. When an author loves their story, it shines through in the work, and readers connect with that.

So go forth and enjoy the process of writing, of putting your own unique stamp on the world through your words. Because you are the only person in the history of the world who can be yourself.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Kurtis Garbutt

(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