By the whole From the Write Angle crew (compiled and condensed by Jean Oram so any omissions leave her to blame)
As part of our AskGiving (Happy Thanksgiving weekend!) here on From the Write Angle, we took our reader's burning questions about writing and publishing (there were some good ones!), and put our group brain together to come up with some sage advice from the fifteen of us.
While this is based on our experiences, you may have had (or will have) different experiences. Feel free to weigh in and comment on these questions (and our replies) in the comment section. Power of the crowd!
All righty… Let's talk turkey. (And maybe grab an extra slice of pumpkin pie, we've got lots to say and we don't want you starving while you read.)
Am I Too Late to the Party?: Market & Timing
This reader has a project they first queried three years ago and has recently been drawn back to it. Their project has a male vampire antagonist and neither young adult nor a paranormal romance. "It leans more toward the horror category, or at least dark urban fantasy." Over the past few years, the market has become over-saturated with vampires and this reader wonders if an agent might oval-file their query without even a glance as soon as they see the word "vampire."
In today's market, is it even worth my time to query this story, even though it is different than the "norm?" I know about subjectivity and the "you never know until you try" thing, but I would really appreciate your honest take on this, as far as traditional publishing goes.
Marcy Kate O'Connolly steps to the plate with the real reason vamps are out: It's because of an oversaturation in paranormal romance/urban fantasy novels (both YA and adult categories). Your book sounds (from your description) as though it is more likely to be horror and I've heard that that genre is starting to make a comeback. Agents are actively seeking it out. You'll do best with a fresh plot that is not paranormal romance-y. Be sure to position the book in a way that makes it clear it's horror.
J. Lea Lopez shares some Twitter expertise from #tenqueries and #10queriesin10tweets on why agents pass on queries: Familiar tropes without anything to make them truly stand out. You have something familiar with vampires, so you'll likely need a unique twist and compelling voice/style of writing to grab an agent's interest. Make sure your query pitches the story in a way that emphasizes the horror genre and what's unique about your story so the last thing an agent will think of is any of those other vampire stories.
I Want to Share: Permissions & Copyright
I'm getting ready to self-publish my novel but I need to secure permission to three songs and two poems that I quoted within the text. However, upon conducting research to find the original publishing dates and the publishers of these works, I am stumbling. Is there a particular website that is devoted to helping contact these places to ask permission to quote their work? Or do I have to hunt them down one by one and somehow find the right source to ask permission? I know the easiest thing to do would be to just give up and delete the non-public domain poems, but at least one of the songs I need has to have a quote because that's where the novel takes its title from.
Using her librarian charms, Mindy McGinnis dug up this article which has lots of links and will walk you through it: http://www.copyright...information.htm. She also found this link for your poetry issues: http://www.audensoci.../copyright.html.
Marcy Kate, using her librarian-in-training charms, suggests you start looking here: http://www.copyright.gov/records/. They have a searchable database, but it only goes back so far digitally.
Meanwhile, J. Lea provides some optimism: We've all seen at least a few books that quote songs or other authors, so it's obviously possible. I'd pursue it as far as you can, and then if you go the traditional publishing route with an agent, they may have additional knowledge or resources on the subject.
Help, I Genre Hop!
What if you have very different books? Should you sacrifice an agent who would be PERFECT for the first book, in exchange for an agent who would be mediocre for both?
The general consensus on this one was best put by Sophie Perinot: You really can't "have your cake and eat it too" right out of the gate. You need to pick a genre, build a brand and THEN branch out.
Jean Oram added: "You never know if an agent is 'perfect' until you have had a conversation with them and they have read your work."
Marcy Kate: Don't rule an agent out based on what they state they rep initially as long as they rep the genre & category of your strongest project. When you get The Call, I can almost guarantee you they will ask about your other projects and where you see your career headed.
Matt Sinclair reminded us that: Some agents might think of writers who genre jump as dilettantes.
Jean says the real issue sounds like you have two very different books. This may actually mean you will need a pen name and have two 'careers' on the go--build two different brands. When you have very different books the issue becomes building an audience. This is the TOUGHEST part of being a new 'unknown' debut author and particularly if you genre hop. If your first book is in one genre and the second book in a different genre, it is going to be difficult to build a loyal audience who buys all your books--publishers like to see an increase in sales between books one and two (which leads to more book deals!).
Sophie Perinot has heard of well-established authors being told by their publishers to set aside some of those genres and get back to basics. "ANYONE who wants 100% control over what book (as in plot) and what genre they write next needs to stick to Indie publishing."
Game plan: Take your 'best' story (or the one you are most likely to be able to write a follow-up story genre-wise) and get an agent for that book. Worry about the other book later. You never know. The agent might be just as pumped about the 'other' book.
As Marcy Kate reminds: Most agents want to represent you for your career, not just one book. And your books may not be as different as you think. For example, if you write children's books (PB/MG/YA), you may have more wiggle room between age levels and genres than say a writer trying to launch a career on chicklit novel and a hard sci-fi space opera.
This Plot's Got it Going On… and Then Some
What if you have too much going, plot wise, in your book, but one event leads to another which leads to another; in other words, it's all connected. How do you pare it down?
Riley Redgate suggests looking for shortcuts. In other words: If you have a plot that goes from A to B to C to D, try looking for a smooth transition from B to D instead. Sometimes that'll involve cutting out plot locations or introductions of new characters - but then again, sometimes you never needed those locations or characters in the first place. I'd say the key to streamlining a twisty, convoluted plot is to think about the straightest logical path from your beginning to your ending. The plot points that deviate the furthest from that path are the things you should consider compromising.
J. Lea adds, See if there are characters or portions of your plot that can do double duty instead of having lots of little things going on. Also, take a long hard look at some of those subplots and twists and ask yourself two things: 1) do they really feel organic to the story, or do you get to a point where it feels like a soap opera, with yet another over-the-top complication before every commercial break? and 2) are they actually important plot points that need to be shown to the reader, or can some of them "disappear" into backstory that is only alluded to after the fact, when necessary?
Marketing My Own Work… Do I Have To? (Two for One)
Our readers realize times have changed in the publishing world and that publishers expect authors to help with marketing and promoting their own books.
What sorts of things do you do to promote? I'm guessing you can't rely only on your own social media. You have to go beyond that to reach out to people who are unknown. How do you get yourself in front of readers?
How important do you think it is to be a worldly, sophisticated, charismatic type of person when you are an author, in order to succeed? Do you think getting published is in the end more about good writing, or about being this charming sort of person?
J. Lea: The writing is always the key.
Marcy Kate warns: Social media is NOT for marketing. It is for engaging with other people and being part of a community.
Sophie says, being visible to the reading public these days means things such as getting reviewed by popular bloggers in your genre and setting up a blog tour, using Google ads, Facebook ads, trying author buzz, or doing a traditional book tour (signing and speaking at numerous indie stores). It can also include blogging and/or guest blogging.
But, she says the keys to whatever marketing you do are: 1) set a budget (minimum is generally suggested as 10% of your advance, but many debut author go higher); 2) make sure you KNOW who your reader is (write out a description of your target reader); 3) don't be scatter-shot in your efforts-- pick marketing outlets (real or virtual) that will expose you to the target reader you have defined (and that means not accepting every blogging invitation and not wasting time on promotion that will largely reach people outside your ideal audience).
And finally, she cautions: DON'T COUNT YOUR PUBLISHER OUT! They can get you reviewed places you likely cannot reach on your own and MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL they can get you coop (paid space on the "New Release" table or an end-cap or window). A lot of authors will tell you that the weeks they spent in a featured location were by far the best selling weeks of their early release period.
MarcyKate throws a little research to back up Sophie's experiences: Studies have shown very little correlation between a social media presence and sales. HOWEVER, those same studies have shown that it is a fantastic tool for building brand awareness which is why having a social media presence is important and recommended. In other words, if you join Twitter, do not repeatedly link to your book on Amazon, or retweet your own blog links all day. Talk to people. Interact with them. Tweet about what matters to you or what you find interesting. In other words, be sure your profile (or timeline if you're on Facebook) isn't all ME ME ME.
Jean chimes in to add: Think of the 80-20 rule. 80% about others and unrelated-to-you stuff, and 20% about you. (It's easier to piss off your audience than to win them over.)
Marcy Kate also suggests you reach out to your local area. If you have local papers that review books or list events, send them (or have your publicist send them if you have one) a press release about the book's release and any local book signings or launch events you might be doing. You never know what might lead to an interview or profile, and that could definitely generate both sales and attendance at those events. Even if you don't have a big budget and don't have the advance funds to reach a national audience in a big way, there are still lots of little things you can do locally that can have a positive impact.
J. Lea: Being brilliantly charming with a mediocre or poor product won't get you very far. If you have a wonderful book but maybe you're a bit shy or introverted, don't worry. Let your words speak for themselves.
Your take-away--as put by Marcy Kate (but definitely echoed by all of us): "The book is the most important thing… That said, you still should keep your public-facing persona respectable and in a positive light."
Look Into Your Crystal Ball: What is the Future of Publishing?
With all the merges/acquisitions going on in the world of publishing, where do you see the literary future? In the hands of megapubs or in the hands of those who march to their own drummer (self-pub)?
J. Lea believes traditional publishing isn't going anywhere. It may change, but it won't go away. Self- and indie publishers are seeing wonderful growth right now, and digital publishing is giving voice to experimental or edgy writing that might have been overlooked in the traditional model.
Jean thinks that those who treat book publishing as an ever-changing business and are willing to change things up are more likely to succeed.
Sophie suggests that the best things a writer can do are: 1) write the best book he/she can; 2) keep up with the industry--developing your craft isn't enough you have to build your knowledge of the business side of things; 3) be flexible and ready to roll with the punches--if you have your mind set as to how things are going to be then chances are they aren't going to be like that at all; 4) know when to walk away--everybody has a point at which the rewards of writing might be outweighed by the hassle. As in any career/profession you are not an indentured servant. Know what your personal limits are and be ready to enforce them (for some this may be a dollars and sense equation for others a satisfaction vs. aggravation balance).
J. Lea also adds: What I think (or hope) will happen is that both the traditional and the indie sides will continue to grow, change, and thrive. I think the traditional model is going to have to learn a few things from the indies, especially concerning time from acceptance to publication. Likewise, there might be something in the gatekeeper model that can benefit readers who love indie books, but would like a better way to easily identify quality. Traditional and self publishing can certainly coexist happily in the same publishing marketplace. It's my hope that we continue to grow together, with each facet of the publishing world learning from the others, and continuing to produce quality books for readers.
To Hire Or Not To Hire: Editors Pre-Queries
If our manuscript has been edited by several critique partners, is it okay to submit to an agent as is (traditional publishing), or should we hire an editor prior to submission? Or would professional editing be handled after agent accepts your manuscript?
Sophie provides the short answer: It is in vogue. But a good editor can cost thousands and less editing is going on at the agent and editor level.
She adds: "If you have the discipline to rewrite and edit then surely you can find some good critique partners and get your manuscript in query-ready shape."
Jean says that if you feel it is strong enough, then submit. But if you get a lot of rejections, looking at your manuscript again might be the thing to do. Some good editors will give you an overall story report/critique ($300 for 90,000 words) which is handy if you feel it is something with the story and not the writing.
Help! I'm a Nobody in my Query Bio
In a query letter, especially in the instance of having no previous publishing experience, should we include a personal paragraph? I.e. What we do for a living, interests, etc. Some agents say they like to get to know the author, whereas, other agents say keep it strictly about the book.
One word that shouted through our conversation about this one: NO.
And a bit of… maybe.
Sophie's rule of thumb: When in doubt leave it out.
Or as Jemi Fraser says: Unless your bio is relevant it's okay to skip it.
Marcy Kate says that unless it is directly relevant, no do not worry about it. If you have professional marketing experience in work life, or have worked in publishing in some capacity, that's appropriate.
Jemi says, that if you feel naked without including one, a short one-liner would work - try to use your voice to your advantage.
Sophie: An agent who becomes enthralled with your query and subsequently your manuscript can have his/her curiosity about who you are satisfied when he calls to get acquainted. Bottom line: In fiction the work has to stand on its own. It either captivates or it doesn't.
The End: Should it Be in Your Query?
If the query letter is supposed to hit the main points of the story, does that include the end, or should we save that for the synopsis?
Short answer: No. (Don't include the end.)
R.C. Lewis: First off, I would never say a query letter is supposed to hit the main points of the story. Definitely not the end. A query doesn't summarize the story. It introduces just enough of it—the protagonist, the conflict, what's at stake—to become an enticing bit of agent-bait.
Sophie puts it another way: The query is about piquing interest. Details/events just need to be carefully selected and pithy.
Marcy Kate gives you a formula to help you out: A good rule of thumb is to cover approximately the first 1/3 to 1/2 of the manuscript in the query. By that point the story should have covered the inciting incident, the antagonist and the main conflict. When to give away the farm (the story's ending): In a synopsis.
Short & Sweet Credentials: The Short Story
Can/should writers self-publish a short story on Amazon? (I have this one story I want to put up because I don't want to go though the hurdle of selling it--I want to concentrate on my current work in progress. If I do end up publishing it, I plan on making it free.) Will agents be more attracted or repulsed by this? If its a short story and free, is there a chance they'll read it, find it engaging, and have more interest in your manuscripts?
Jean fires a few questions back to help you figure out what is right for you: "Why do you want to do this? What is your purpose? What do you hope to achieve?"
Our resident short story expert, J. Lea, says, I don't think it's likely to sway an agent. If you continue to publish short stories on Amazon, at least some for actual sale, and have good results, that might be something an agent would look at. A free Amazon story is no different than something you post on your blog, other than having the potential to reach more people. If you're interested in using short stories as a publishing credit to include in query letters, you're better off seeking publication in magazines or literary journals. Checkout duotrope.com for a searchable database.
R.C. adds: Some genres put more weight on having short stories published than others. Whether they care about it being published by a magazine vs. self-published probably varies by individual. I'm not sure not sure how many agents cruise around self-published short fiction—but I doubt it'd hinder, either.
Jean says if you are hoping it will pave the way for your manuscript, it likely won't. (Sorry!) If you hope it will build audience... it could. However by the time you have put out your ms, it is likely that you will have missed the timing in terms of converting the short story readers into novel readers.
She continues, as for impressing agents and publishing editors... it probably won't. Even if you get a ton of downloads they tend to disregard it because you are giving it away. They want to know how many people will pay for your writing. But if you put it up as paid, and it is a short story and you are an unknown... well, chances are you aren't going to get a lot of purchases.
So FTWA (From the Write Angle) readers, what do you think? Did we look at these questions from the write angle? Or are there things to add? Be heard in the comment section.
From the whole From the Write Angle crew, thanks for reading. We hope you've had a wonderful Thanksgiving.