Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Thirtysomething is not just a TV show

I’m one of those folks who grew up telling myself that one day, I’d write a book. I’m almost 30 now, and while I don’t seem to hold any of those ‘big birthday’ reservations that many of my friends went through, getting a book published was the one thing that niggled at me. I soon realised that fiction isn’t my forte. So I put together a concept based on my approach to impending thirty-dom and I am currently six months into it. I’m diarising through a blog (a rough first draft, I guess) and am starting to wonder how this is going to translate into a memoir when I have completed the year.

My main question is – and I’m pre-emptively shielding myself for your response - is it too early to approach agents with the idea? I know it’s a cardinal sin to send a first draft of anything, let alone an unfinished one. But a friend who has dabbled in this stuff suggested that there was no harm in sussing out the market, particularly as an interested agent may have ideas on how to ‘steer’ it. A couple of the things I’ve experienced while doing this project have already generated some media interest in the form of radio interviews, and I want to know if I can use this to my advantage at this early stage.

[I have removed details of the author's project to protect her idea - AS]

The part of your message that leapt out at me was: 'am starting to wonder how this is going to translate into a memoir when I have completed the year'. That's exactly what I would wonder, too, if you sent me a submission about it.

It's one thing to be an expert or almost-expert in a subject that has been established to have general appeal to the public, to then write a proposal about a book on this subject and try to find a publisher. That's what journalists, academics and Ben Cousins get to do. But it's another thing altogether to be attempting to find a publisher without these elements behind you.

You can get away with it under the following conditions:

Your idea is strong and different (not original - there's no such thing, really). The idea you sent me was interesting but not that different.

Your writing needs to be great. Thus whatever is on the blog can't be your rough first draft - it has to be the draft as that's what you'll be asking a publisher/agent to look at. And it needs to be so great that the agent/publisher would be prepared to overlook the fact that your story isn't finished and may, in fact, never be finished. There's a risk that you won't complete your mission, you see. Not a big risk, but a risk. You could lose interest. Or die. (That's NOT morbid - the mortality rate is still 100% so it's a viable risk, and it's a risk that's written into publishing contracts.)

The radio interviews are nice but they're not useful yet unless they can promise you coverage at the time of publication. Also, there may be harm in sussing out the market too early - you can really only submit with that kind of thing once, unless an agent loves the idea enough to say 'come back and see me when you have more'.

So if your idea is great or your writing is great (I'm not presuming you'll have both - you don't necessarily need both) then go ahead and give it a try. But don't be surprised if an agent says, 'Come back and see me when you're finished'. And, really, why can't you wait until then? This probably sounds tough but it's less tough than having your heart broken by querying people at the wrong time. You're likely to think it means that your project has no merit and it will probably just be the case that is was the wrong time.

Also just to clarify a little point: agents aren't here to steer unless you're already our client or we think you're a genius who just needs a little reining in. Quite often I'm sent submissions by people which consist of them saying they have an idea and what they really need is for me to tell them what to do in order to write up the idea and get it published. Regrettably, I don't have the time. The good news is, though, that writers' centres can help you with this and there are links to them there somewhere -------------->

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

One woman's treasure is another woman's ...

I am the lucky gold star recipient for the QL you analysed in your 17th January blog (QL #11, "A Heat Of The Moment Thing"). I was absolutely thrilled that it had passed muster, but have just received feedback from RWAmerica's Great Expectations contest that pretty much slammed the identical QL! This is what was said:

'Query is nicely written but I am not seeing a hint of a story, goal, motivation, major conflict, hurdles. This seems more like a description of two or so chapters. What does Becky want to achieve? What’s her goal? How is it impeded? What are some of the psychological reasons Becky doesn’t do relationships, or even a hint of one, e.g., "burned by boys in high school, young..."'

Now, I understand that judges are generally not agents or editors! And I understand that one person's idea of a great QL isn't necessarily another's. But I thought I'd hinted at enough to whet an agent/editor's appetite. Now I'm left wondering if this is something I should be trying to address in a more specific way - or whether it's a US vs Downunder thing - or whether it's just one of those best-ignored quirky judges' comments.

Any thoughts you have on this would be greatly appreciated.

This a perfect example of why it's so hard for authors to be able to guess what's right for the agent, publisher or competition they're submitting to: everyone's different, and you can't please all of the people all of the time. All any of us 'industry professionals' can do is try to provide some general guidelines, but in the end it all comes down to the expectations and taste of the person who's reading your query.

For me, your query letter was pretty much perfect. I loved your tone; the amount of detail you gave was great, and the hook was great too. I don't know what the RWAmerica guidelines were but it seems as though these judges had certain expectations that weren't met. The amount of detail requested by the judges - the detail they're saying you didn't provide - is probably more detail than agents/publishers would want. I don't need you to tell me about the character's psychological background in the query letter - I expect to find that out when I read the manuscript.

So perhaps this is just a matter of different submission guidelines and different expectations, and romance is quite specific about what's expected (I'm not an expert in it). Perhaps the lesson out of it is: read the submission guidelines carefully.

However, I thought you wrote a great query letter. So why not test it 'in the wild' - send it out, see what happens? If you're concerned, only send it to a couple of agents and see what the response is. If you're getting rejected, then look at tweaking it and maybe consult with some members of the romance writing community - it's very vibrant and, from what I've seen, collegial.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The ghost who walks

I have put together a synopsis and the first chapter of an autobiography for a friend - essentially, I would act as a ghost writer. My question is: if the subject matter is good enough, would an agent see past my poor writing skills and come back with 'Great idea, but you suck at writing, friend, we will use our own ghost writer', or would they just reject on the basis of my writing not being up to standard? Obviously, I wouldn't want to jeopardise my friend's chance at getting her story published.

If the story is really strong and we don't like the writing, we may indeed express interest in the story and want to talk about how the writing could be improved. But the story would need to be very strong, and different to what's already out there.

However, I'm more intrigued by the fact that you think you may jeopardise your friend's chances: I suspect your friend has either asked you to help or has agreed to accept your help knowing full well what your skills are. But if you don't believe in your writing, it's unlikely anyone else will. So put those shoulders back, then put one of them to the wheel and keep writing.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Many authors, one query letter

I ran across your blog today and was wondering if you knew the correct way to send a query letter with multiple authors, or do you think that we should use only one name in our query letter?

The correct way is to list all the names of the authors involved. Unless none of you wants your names known, in which case you should construct a pseudonym.

I'm not sure why having multiple authors would even be a cause of concern - lots of books have more than one author!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

There is no agent for you

I'm looking to get a book published. I have one problem, though, and it's that I'm not sure which agents can/will represent my work. I thought that, since you run the "Call My Agent!" blog, you might have some good advice to help set me in the right direction. So here's my problem:

I've designed a pen-and-paper game and the book is the set of rules for that game. So my problem is, essentially, that I don't really know which agencies to send my work to or how to word a query letter about my game. Almost all the advice I can find on the internet regarding queries is directed specifically towards fiction writers, and when I rang the Australian Society of Authors, the advice I got was 'just send out a query letter to as many agencies as you can'. Because my book is more like a manual for a computer or board game than a fiction novel, it's
difficult to know where to send it or how to advertise it.

I'll overlook your egregious use of 'fiction novel' and focus on your conundrum ... and it is a conundrum.

First, as the panel at right ----> says, I can't give advice about individual agents.

Second, your project is nothing that any agent I can think of would be able to place for you, unless that agent has specialised knowledge of games. And, generally speaking, we're book nerds, not game nerds. The ASA should probably have told you that. Agents tend to deal mainly with trade publishers, and that's not really the sort of book a lot of Australian trade publishers will look at.

Academic publishers may be interested, but because I'm not a game nerd I don't know enough to tell you that definitively. The best thing to would be to try to find some books similar to yours, see who published them and then make some enquiries accordingly. Good luck!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Submitting biography

I'm working on a biography of a major female Australian historical figure. [I have removed the information the writer sent me lest he give away his good idea. - AS]

It's my first biography and my publication track record only includes corporate and policy tomes published by the Australian Government.

Here are my questions.
Is it best to finish the biography before submitting it to a publisher or agent?
If the answer to the above is no, are three or four chapters enough to have complete (and polished beyond the first draft)?
And is a proposed completion date of 2013 reasonable or laughable?

I'd also be grateful for any information you may care to share, on the blog, about publishing historical biographies in Australia.

I'll answer the first two questions together: it used to be okay to submit non-fiction on a partial manuscript - it was expected, even - but now it's getting harder to do that. I think publishers make a rod for their own backs if they expect a lot of journalists and academics to write full manuscripts before submitting anything, because usually their day jobs are all-consuming. But, in the current uncertain climate, they're looking for more certainty. However, as I'm privy to knowledge about your subject matter, I think you could get away with a partial submission - just don't be surprised if you're asked to come back later with a full manuscript.

As to your third question: your subject has been dead a long time. Why would it matter if you're not finished until 2013? (Unless there's a competing work being written by someone else.) Just as long as you're upfront about how long you'll need. What you shouldn't do is tell a publisher you'll be ready by January 2012 and in January 2012 say, 'Oops - I lied.'

General information about historical biographies: it's entirely dependent on the subject. If you're writing about your dear Aunt Vera and her twelve children growing up in Wallabadah, don't expect to have much success. If you're offering a new spin on Lachlan Macquarie, though, let's have it! [Note to readers: Lachlan Macquarie - certainly not female - is not the subject of this writer's biography.] Personally I'd love someone to do something on Inigo Jones, but perhaps it's an audience of one ...

Friday, February 4, 2011

Size matters

Is it true that literary agents reject writers because their novel is too short? If so, what would the general word count be for a young adult novel?

Yes, it's true. But it's not because we're inherently anti-short novels. It's because publishers like books to be of a certain length - and that's entirely to do with how much they want to be able to charge for a book and how much paper they will have to buy in order to print the book and make the costing work at the RRP ...

Young adult novels, however, can be shorter than adult novels. And that's because the price points are lower: generally under $20. I don't know that you'd want to attempt to place anything under 30 000 words and Harry Potter et al have shown us that the upper limits for a word count can be nudged a little. So anywhere between 30 000 and Hogwarts. But I'm also a fan of not writing to the word count: write the story and see where it takes you before you count the words.