Monday, November 28, 2011

Greatest hits: The slush pile and how to emerge from it

**Recently I was talking to a friend about this blog and I mentioned that there wasn't much for me to do any more, as I've answered a lot of questions over the past four years. She suggested that I post some 'greatest hits' for the newer readers. So here's the first of them. Let's hope I can find others! And thanks to my friend K for the suggestion.**

Reader kaz posted the following question in a comment, and I thought it was worth pulling into the main site:

"I’ve placed three first novels in the past few months, with good prospects for others." How do you find new authors, Agent S? Do you just stumble upon them in the 'slush pile'? If so, what makes them stand out from the crowd?

I have stumbled across some in the slush pile; others have come through referrals from existing clients or are writers I've met in the course of work.

Those who came from the slush pile have a few elements in common:
1. Fantastic query letter. You'd be surprised how often the covering letter says something like, 'Here is my novel. I hope you like it' and that's it. All the written communication from an author is an indication of how they write, from their cover letter to their emails and all points in between. I'm sure that often writers don't know that they shouldn't do this (hence one of the reasons for this blog - to shine a bit of light on what authors need to do), but they really shouldn't. Because a letter like that makes me think that the author can't articulate what their novel is about, they can't tell me who they are or what they want from their writing, and they certainly can't tell me why they approached my agency. Writing a query letter is a skill, and good writers refine their query letters several times. There are workshops on it in the US, and you may find the odd one at a writers' centre here too.

2. The author has taken their time with the manuscript before sending it in; it is usually the fourth or fifth draft or beyond by the time they send it in (and they say this in the query letter). They may also have done some courses, such as QWC's 'Year of the Novel' or a program at Varuna. This indicates that are realistic about how much work is involved in writing a novel and will therefore be more realistic about the publishing road ahead.

3. They are great writers. Their prose may shine like a jewel; or maybe it doesn't but they tell such a fantastic story that the prose is not the focus.

4. They are polite in their communication with the agency and respectful of the amount of time it may take us to make a decision about their manuscript. This point is actually quite important, because I, at least, feel that I'm 'auditioning' writers for publishers (and that does not mean that I think agents should be treated as if on a pedestal - although I do like my grapes peeled occasionally). Writers who are unreasonably difficult with their publishers often never get published again, because the Australian publishing culture is quite genteel and really doesn't take well to foot-stompers. So if someone is routinely shirty with me, I know exactly how they'll behave with their publisher and what that will mean for their book: usually, not much. It takes more effort to be angry than to be reasonable, and it's easier to be reasonable when you remember that agents and publishers aren't the enemy. We love books - that's why we work in publishing. We just don't have 24 hours a day to read submissions, so it will take us some time to get back to you. If you respect our request to give us three months to read your submission, we'll respect your writing. If you, instead, call after two weeks to complain that we're taking too much time, that doesn't really bode well.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pitch, wait, wait, wait, follow up

I recently pitched to a publisher at a writer's festival and forgot to ask how the follow-up procedure worked. I left them with a query letter and the first chapter of my novel. What do you suggest the follow-up procedure should be? Should I call after three months if I have not heard anything etc?

Three months is very reasonable but I actually think you don't need to wait that long if it was a letter and a chapter and you met someone - six weeks is enough time. Only call if you have a number for an actual individual - if all you have is a switchboard number, you're probably not going to get through. And the reason for that, in my experience, is that us publishing folks don't like phone calls. We like things in writing (this probably won't come as a surprise). So send an email - if it's to a general email address, mark it for the attention of whomever it was you met, briefly say where you met and what you gave her/him, say that you're following up and that if you haven't heard back within another six weeks, you'll send another note. Keep it short and polite. Don't ask for anything. Don't use any words that could be construed as a complaint that you haven't heard from her/him already. Do not look directly into their eyes. Do not feed the animals. Et cetera.

If you still haven't heard after three months, leave it. In the meantime, you should be querying elsewhere. Unless this publisher asked you for exclusivity they don't expect it, so put some other irons in the fire while you wait.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The possibility of offending people and other thoughts on submissions

A commenter to the previous post posited the following:

... the pool of people potentially to offend (ie people and companies taking submissions, especially in Australia) is so small and so apparently interconnected, the possibility of getting it wrong seems like a big risk to take -- is it unreasonable to fear that a mistake will affect all your future submissions as well as the current one? It seems hard to condemn someone for overthinking it, the way it is in the publishing industry at the moment.

And the answer is: yes, it's unreasonable. The reason I say that is that the publishing industry - as monolithic and impenetrable as it seems - is not a collective of vindictive individuals, let alone individuals who have enough time and brain space to remember the name of each author who sends in a submission, the better to be able to give them a black mark for a future submission. Nor do we discuss submissions with each other. So while, yes, the industry is interconnected - as many are - we don't tend to conspire.

So for those of you who are submitting now or in the future, or who have submitted in the past and not been successful, please bear this in mind: in almost 100% of cases rejection isn't personal to you, the author. It is about your work. If the rejection is personal, then it means you have already had some kind of interaction with an agent or publisher and it's not working out for whatever reason, and thus the relationship is severed, regardless of what the work's like. But usually it's the work.

Accordingly, when you're planning to submit, ensure that your work is the best it can be. Then do your best with the query/submission letter and the synopsis if these things are requested. All you can do is your best. Everyone in the publishing industry understands this. And we won't know if you're not doing your best, of course, because we don't know you; so we presume that you do your best and make a decision accordingly.

If you have not done your best, do not be surprised if you're rejected - you haven't given yourself much of a chance, so why should an agent or publisher give you a chance? This reaction, by the way, is not evidence of malice on their part.

Finally, before submitting, work out what sort of person you are: the sort who believes that things happen to them because everything is against them and they can't control what happens - the 'why me?' or 'God hates me' type - or the sort who believes they have some kind of agency in their own fate. Because this, more than anything, will determine how you handle the submission process and the inevitable rejections - which the vast majority of published authors have received, by the way, at some stage of their career.

You can make your work the best it can be but still be a 'why me?' type who is going to fall at the first hurdle; you can submit work that is not your best but also be a person who believes that they can have control over their own life. The ideal combination is to be a writer who makes their work the best it can be and also be a person who believes that things that happen to them are not the result of a malevolent force that's out to get them. Both of these things are within your control. Both of them affect your ability to succeed at what you want to do. Being a successful writer - however you define that - takes talent and application. Mostly application. And application is also within your control.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tripping over genres

This may sound odd or, sadder, not sound odd. I've completed a manuscript ("Ack! Another one! Quick run away!!!") and am about to seek representation in North America.

I've written a supernatural mystery, but have a question about genre. It is an unwarranted imposition, but would Supernatural Mystery be used and universally understood in the industry or would I be better advised going with Paranormal or just staying with the umbrella of Fantasy? Are there genre identifiers that should be avoided? What is common parlance in the publishing industry today?

You know better than anyone, the publishing and agenting worlds have changed. Ten years ago there were a dozen subgenres of Science Fiction. Today there are scores not counting the sub-subgenres.

'Supernatural mystery' sounds pretty clear to me - it's a mystery story with supernatural elements, yeah? I guess you could call it 'paranormal mystery' if you prefer, but then you'd want to make sure that it conforms to the (many, it seems) rules about the paranormal genre.

'Supernatural' probably gives you a bit more freedom and - newsflash - no one is going to reject you if you don't get your genre just right, unless you send this supernatural mystery to an agent who only looks after romance novels or one who only does non-fiction. When someone sends me something with a genre on it, I use it as a guide but only that, because if I take on the manuscript and submit it to publishers, I may have to change the genre anyway to suit what the publishers are used to. Genre is a fast-and-loose proposition these days.

As always, though, the most important thing is your writing. If you have written a brilliant paranormal romance and somehow labelled it 'supernatural mystery', will I care about the genre mis-identification? No. I just care about the writing. Of course, if you have a screaming match with me about the fact that you want to call it supernatural mystery when it's clearly not, then may change my mind about wanting to have you as a client ... but the problem there is the screaming, not the genre itself.