Pub Rants

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

Category: Writing As A Career

Internal vs. External Conflict

(Just a note, this article was featured in our April 2020 Newsletter. Some references may not correspond with recent events. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

I think we could all use some Harry Potter in our lives right about now, so this month, I’m going to chat about what I personally consider the most important part of plotting, using Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as my example. 

No matter what stage your manuscript is in, there are three questions you need to be able to answer:

  1. What is your protagonist’s internal conflict?
  2. What is the manuscript’s major external conflict?
  3. How do those two conflicts work in harmony?

All too often, I see internal and external conflicts that don’t work together the way they need to. Here’s the secret: Your external conflict and internal conflict should be tightly woven together because the external conflict exists as a mechanism to force internal change and growth in your character.

For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry’s internal conflict is that he feels like an outsider. He is alienated from the muggle world, but doesn’t feel like he fits in to the wizarding world either. His interactions with the Dursleys make him feel as though he doesn’t have a family. His interactions with Malfoy and Snape make him feel ignorant about the wizarding world. Even the more positive starstruck reactions of people like Fred and George, Professor Quirrel, and Hermione all drive home the fact that Harry is an outsider from every angle. 

The external conflict in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone(and in most of the individual HP books) concerns Voldemort trying to return. In this case, his plan is to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone and use it to gain immortality. This conflict with Voldemort is set up from the very first pages of Harry Potter and is repeatedly planted in an escalating fashion throughout until it culminates in the final battle.

If you analyze the plot of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it is actually very tightly woven around these two conflicts, which are constantly in a dance with each other. For example, Voldemort’s history with Harry is the reason Harry was sent to live with the Dursleys, and it’s also the reason he is an outsider in the wizarding community. Voldemort is actually the causeof Harry’s internal conflict. 

By the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, you see Harry feeling more confident in the wizarding world and at Hogwarts. You see him overcoming his external conflict with Voldemort (for now) and becoming a hero of the school and, in doing so, winning the House Cup for Gryffindor, which symbolically cements his place as someone who belongs. If you analyze the plot, it is both a riveting adventure and a story that serves Harry’s internal conflict and ultimate growth from an orphan who doesn’t belong to a confident boy who has embraced his birthright as a wizard and discovered his found family in Ron and Hermione.

And that, my friends, is how Harry’s external conflict (Voldemort) both causes his internal conflict and ultimately forces his growth.

You should be able to do this with any manuscript you love—including your own! So as you turn back to your editing, writing, reading, etc., ask yourself how well the external conflict is dancing with the internal conflict.

Happy writing! 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Kate Ter Haar


Why an Evolved Query System Is a Good Thing

Back in 2004, NLA was one of the first agencies to go entirely electronic by accepting query letters solely by email. I remember chatting with some agent friends about it, and you would have thought the sky was falling. They were passionately certain they would never go that route because sending an email was way too easy. Agents would be inundated. Only aspiring writers who took the time to compose a letter, print it out, put in in an envelope, address it, affix postage, and then walk or drive it to a post office could be considered serious enough about the biz.

Well, my agent friends weren’t wrong. Email definitely allowed far more query letters—many less than professional—to make it to my desk. But my reasoning at the time was that email was faster and easier, and it would allow me as an agent to get a jump on hot projects. As a new, unknown agent, any edge I could create was worth the risk.

As an agency, we accepted email queries for 13 years, and in January 2019, we decided to shift to a rather amazing service called QueryManager.

If the number of emails we’ve received from outraged writers is any indication, then once again, you’d think the sky was falling. How dare we create even more hoops for a writer to jump through?

For the record, I understand the frustration. The query process is not easy, and sending emails is a lot simpler than filling out and submitting an online form. The good news is, QueryTracker exists! Developed by the same folks who gave us QueryManager, QueryTracker can be used by writers to greatly simplify their submissions process, so give it a look.

For us at NLA, it came down to this: QueryManager is not meant to be a hoop for writers to jump through; it’s meant to be a simplification, for agents and for writers. We are an agency that responds to each and every query letter we receive. That is the kind of agent I want to be because responding is respectful, and I will never post on our site that “no response means we’re not interested,” which feels cold. But with four agents at the agency, it quickly became clear that we needed a better system for handling the sheer volume of queries we were receiving. Not to mention, we were getting a lot of emails from writers saying they never received a response from us, even though a response had been sent, and a lot of phone calls from writers whose queries had bounced back to them. It was taking our office staff a lot of time to troubleshoot with these authors.

Enter QueryManager—a robust tool that has hugely simplified the lives of our office staff and agents. Sorting and filtering queries—by genre, by word count, by several other parameters—is a breeze. Responding promptly is a snap. Our screeners are more efficient. In the end, that means our turn-around time is pretty darn good—something writers greatly appreciate. I personally like logging in and checking my response stats. This actually encourages me to stay on top of my query inbox and feels like personal goals achieved, and who doesn’t like a visual representation of a job well done?

By switching, I truly believe we are providing better service to writers. If a writer’s project doesn’t fit what we’re currently accepting, then there’s no need to send the query. Just diminishing the volume of non-fits has simplified the query influx for us as well.

(Now, if I can just get queriers to stop trying to circumvent the system by selecting a genre that their work clearly doesn’t fit but that is on the list of what we accept, then system would be perfect!)

Good luck out there! Feel free to check out our guidelines and read more about what we’re looking for. Even if NLA ends up passing on your query, hopefully we sent that response in a timely fashion and you are moving on to other great agent possibilities.

Creative Commons Credit: Christoph Scholz


Are We Ready for Pandemic Stories Yet?

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


Observe Juneteenth: Buy Books by Black Authors

For us here at NLA, it was paramount to get June’s newsletter right. We are living in a civil rights moment in history; we simply couldn’t do a business-as-usual publishing article. We embraced and then discarded many a topic for this space. None seemed right (and many would be powerful articles, but my voice is not what needs to be heard in this moment in time).

Then we realized we could release this newsletter on June 19, 2020: Juneteenth. One way to honor #BlackLivesMatter is to amplify black voices in literature on this date. So that is what we are doing.

What is Juneteenth? It is a holiday observed each year on June 19 to mark the official end of slavery in the U.S. For the history of this holiday, let me pass the mic to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is an Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

To honor Juneteenth, we encourage our newsletter readers to buy a book, fiction or nonfiction, by a Black author today. Actually, buy two, or three, four, or more. At a loss for ideas? This is by no means an exhaustive list; however, we are positive that you will find a gem.

NONFICTION

NLA BOOKS

LITERARY

HISTORICAL

COMMERCIAL

SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY

YOUNG ADULT

LINKS & LISTS

Creative Common Photo Credit: XoMEoX


What to Consider When Looking for an Agent

Many of you are probably querying or preparing to query. Maybe you’re between agents. Whatever the case, I wanted to give a bit of an overview of the things you should keep in mind as your writing career progresses. Much like any relationship, finding the right agent, editor, publisher, etc., can be hit or miss. Everyone has the best intentions and hopes things will work out, but no one can predict the future. We enter into what we hope will be longterm partnerships after a phone call and a series of questions, questions that can never address every possible scenario. Sometimes, the partnership just doesn’t work, which is fairly common in publishing. Regardless, here are some things to consider.

Editorial vs. Non-Editorial Agent. At this point most, if not all, agents are editorial. It has become a significant requirement that agents polish clients’ manuscripts before taking them out on submission. Still, there are a variety of editorial styles. Some agents just edit the first 50 to 100 pages and then include big-picture notes. Some do extensive line and developmental editing and also include an edit letter. Some may only do an edit letter. You can ask an agent what their editing style is, but their answer won’t really matter until you know what style works best for you. Try to get a variety of peer edits in various styles. If one works better for you than another, you know exactly what you’re looking for. If they all work, excellent!

Brainstorming/Concept Collaboration. How involved in the creative process would you like your agent to be? When we go out on sub, I have my clients send me five ideas for their next project. I then give them feedback and tell them which idea(s) make the most sense to pursue based on the market and what editors have told me they’re looking for. My help in walking through a concept is one of the reasons my clients chose me as their agent. Is this something you would need as well? Would you also want feedback as you draft—say, on the first 50 pages so you know you are headed in the right direction? If so, then ask potential agents if this is one of their strengths.

Career Management. In addition to helping with concept building and brainstorming, some agents also give career-management advice. This is helpful if you want to switch gears, perhaps moving from adult to YA or vice versa. An agent can guide you through that career transition, which might include rebranding you as an author or launching you under a new pen name.

Negotiations. How does your agent/agency negotiate? You don’t want to work with someone who is too soft and may push back only lightly. But you also might be turned off by someone who is too aggressive. It is fair to ask an agent what kinds of deal and contract terms they might fight for on your behalf and why. You might not care as long as they can get you a solid book deal, but negotiation is a huge part of what an agent does, so it never hurts to be aware of how your potential agent handles it.

Personality. Lastly, is personality important to you? What kind of personality are you looking for in an agent? Do you want someone friendly? Personable? Is it okay if they only contact you when necessary? Do you want someone patient who will answer all your questions no matter how many you have or how often you ask? Do you want a hand-holder? A shark? That’s a fair thing to want to discern. And agents might not know themselves where they fall. Reach out to their clients. Even if you are just querying and don’t have an offer or rep, you might be able to piece together some clues based on what clients say about their agents online or in the acknowledgments of their books.

Now that you know some agent-seeking basics, you can research confidently. There is still no guarantee that you’ll find the perfect fit for your entire career, but this will certainly help you figure out what you really want at this early stage.

Good luck!

Creative Commons Credit: Apichart Meesri


The Thing That Makes You Special

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 Credit: Kurtis Garbutt


Every Writer is Equal When Facing the Blank Page

 

(Just a note, this article was a feature in our newsletter from a few months ago. If you would like to receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

Tis the season for eggnog chai and holiday shopping. As I considered what to write about for my last article of 2019, I felt compelled to end on a positive, optimistic note for writers in the trenches. I’m going to guess that authors trying to get that first foot in the door have heard a lot of rejection language over the last twelve months. These aspiring writers might be looking at established authors wistfully, perhaps assuming that writing must be effortless for them. Words of gold just automatically drop off the pen onto the page. Every word is a treasure. 

And rainbows and unicorns always follow too.

I love my clients. They are an incredible and talented bunch. But “every word is a treasure” is not a reality of the writing life. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of clunky writing from my clients. Rejoice, writers. Clunkers happen to everyone. There are no exceptions. 

When my clients are at their writing clunkiest, here are the four things that seem to hold true:

  • They haven’t quite nailed the story that actually needs to be told.
  • The story’s POV (point-of-view) needs to shift to a different character, or from first person to third person or vice versa.
  • They are writing to the novel pitch/summary rather than actually focusing on writing the scene that needs to happen for the novel as a whole.
  • The character doesn’t have a strong enough backstory, so their development is lacking on the page.

Beginning writers and established authors are all equal when they’re facing that blank page and starting something new. If I took a poll at a writing conference, I’m positive 90% of new writers there wouldn’t think that to be true. They would believe that once an author’s first book is published, their writing becomes smooth sailing. That’s definitely a misconception. Here’s another piece of maybe-good news. When starting a brand-new novel, every author, even those who are established, is in the same boat. Every single story to be told is unique. Even if you have written one novel, starting a new one is basically learning all over again how to write a novel because the tools used to craft the debut might not work for book two. 

But every novel written is one more step on the path toward mastery of the arts of dialogue, scene tension, world-building, and so on. Which is why I always tell writers, never stop creating new stories. And if an agent or editor says no to one novel, jump right in there and get another novel going. 

Just today I spotted a Deal Lunch announcement for an author who sold a debut novel. I saw a different project from that author back in 2016. So huge kudos to that writer. If your first submit doesn’t sell, so what? You have other stories to tell. If that writer had quit, they wouldn’t be popping champagne to celebrate the sale that just happened in 2019.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Rennett Stowe


Financial Literacy for Authors

Money, so they say, is a taboo subject, so don’t expect fellow writers to spill financial details.

Until now. Hats off to Heather Demetrios for pulling back the curtain and being brave enough to share her mistakes in the article “How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying.” It’s considered gauche to talk about money in this industry, yet it’s probably one of the most important topics authors should be discussing.

Agents are often in a weird position when it comes to talking to our clients about money management. On one hand, we are the author’s business partner; on the other hand, we aren’t their parent. We don’t want to make assumptions about an author’s financial responsibility (or irresponsibility).

Over the years, when I have a debut author who has landed a big advance, I have asked for permission to put on my mom hat and give counsel. If the author says yes, I offer these four pieces of advice:

  1. When the advance comes in, don’t wait. Cut a check for 25% of the total that has come in and mail that check to the IRS right then and there. I’ve heard too many horror stories of authors finding themselves in real trouble when April 15 rolled around and the money was already spent.
  2. Ever heard of the adage “pay yourself first”? Most people don’t know exactly what that means. Well, in investing terms, it means immediately placing the maximum percentage allowed by the IRS for that particular tax year into a retirement account (i.e., a Roth IRA, IRA, Vanguard S&P 500 fund, or similar).
  3. If you have a mortgage your advance can pay down (or, better yet, pay off), that is worth considering. Owning your home outright can create a lot of financial freedom. If you have student loans or other debts, consider eliminating them.
  4. Connect with a financial advisor who only charges by the hour rather than taking a percentage of your investments. This is a way to gain expert advice on reasonable terms—especially for authors who feel lost in the weeds about this whole investing and saving-for-retirement thing. Garrett Planning Network is a good resource that can hook you up with a fee-only certified financial planner.

In the end, the best way to think about your advance is to take that amount and divide it by, say, three years. What would the author’s annual salary then be? For example, if an author is lucky enough to get a $150,000 as an advance (sounds fab, right?), that’s $150,000 minus 25% in taxes, which equals only $37,500 a year for three years. If that’s your sole income for those three years, that might be a bit sobering.

My client Courtney Milan once told me that a blog article I wrote a lifetime ago on authors and retirement really made a difference in how she managed her money. I wish I could find that original blog post, but chances are good the info would be outdated anyway. For more up-to-date info, here are my recommendations for retirement planning:

So thank you, Heather, for getting the ball rolling for authors to talk about money. Mentorship tends to be a key factor for success in publishing. So let’s not be shy about discussing this topic.

 

Creative Commons Credit: Ben Taylor


The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

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


Coronavirus & U.S. Publishing

I hope when this article hits your screen, you are safe and healthy while sheltering at home. If you are in the medical profession, I’m sending extra-warm health karma your way. You are on the front lines, and we here at NLA appreciate all you do. My mom is almost 80 now and long retired, but she was an RN. I know exactly what kinds of sacrifices you and your family are making right now.

As a way to jump into this month’s article, I re-read my February column. The words “and may become a global threat” have sadly come to fruition. In the last two weeks, our world has shifted on its axis. 

We here at the Denver office implemented work-from-home over nineteen days ago, so all of us are luckily sane and virus-free. As half our company already works remotely and all our main processes (including CRM and accounting) are cloud-based, we have seen very little disruption in our work flow. The agent team IMs every day, and we’ve been doing weekly video Chime meetings for the last four years, so it feels like business as usual for us. Where we work literally does not matter, although we all miss laughter and shared coffee.

Publishing as an industry can maintain some stability in this work-remotely world. I can report the following:

  • Contracts-in-process are closing in about the same amount of time as they were closing previously.
  • Payments and royalties have not been disrupted as almost all publishers pay via ACH.
  • Foreign deals are still happening, but they do feel a little slower.
  • Film/TV options are occurring, despite news of major agencies doing pay cutbacks and furloughs. I had two offers come in just this week.
  • NLA agents are submitting projects, and editors assure us they are eager to read. They have lots of time to read.

The publishing picture is currently stable, but I also want to speak to the reality of having physical stores nationwide shut down for weeks on end. I expect much lower physical print runs in the months to come. Recent releases saw much sharper drop-off in sales than what would have been normal. Although publishers’ marketing and publicity teams are devising alternative strategies, if households are strapped tighter with a layoff, etc., book sales will suffer. That translates to editorial boards being more discerning on what is acquired and definitely more conservative in advances offered. 

I anticipate a tightening across the board. Stay inside. Stay well.

Recent news articles:

Publishers Struggle With When and How to Move Pub Dates

HMH Reduces Salaries

Paradigm Layoffs

UTA Cuts Salaries

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Nenad Stojkovic


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