Wednesday, February 29, 2012

My First Agent Crush

My first and only agent crush hit me during the summer of 2008 at the Squaw Valley Community of Writer’s Conference. My dream agent had bangs and cool nerd glasses and walked in wearing hot-pink, strappy, heeled sandals and sat next to me. She led our workshop with friendly authority and insightful comments; she was encouraging but critical. I got to talk to her during the break. I said I liked her shoes and managed not to drool. She was smart and sarcastic and funny and I decided right then she was going to be my agent.

That afternoon she was on an agent panel—that was why she’d worn the fancy shoes—and I wrote down nearly everything she said in my notebook. The three other agents had good information to share, too, so I took pages of notes about how advances work, what percentages to expect for royalties and commission, what to say in a query letter, what to ask an agent before signing, but most of all their message was clear: make the writing shine before you submit and find an agent who loves your work. Or, as my dream agent said, “If you’re not physically nauseous at the sight of your book, you’re not done,” and, “If your agent loves your writing, she’ll fight for it and for you.” 

I wanted her to fight for me. When I gave her my pitch after class—palms sweaty and my pulse in my temples—she said what every agent-struck author wants to hear: “That sounds interesting. When you’re ready, send me your query and the first two chapters.” OMG! I practically twirled. She was interested!

So I left that conference all flutter-hearted and ready to make my work shine, to make it sing from the rooftops that it was good enough, that it was ready to be represented. I revised for months. I won the Maurice Prize in fiction that fall but I kept revising. All my friends said I was waiting too long, that I should send it to the agent I’d met, but I wasn’t nauseous at the sight of my book yet. I had to follow her advice to the letter or hate myself for rushing and ruining my chances.

I revised for a few more months and finally, finally, I sent my query and the first two chapters just like we’d discussed. I was sure she’d love it. She was perfect for me. She had to see we were a match made in heaven, right?

She rejected me. Very nicely, but still, I was deflated. I’d put myself out there, poured my heart into this relationship only to get dumped with a line that sounded like a bad TV break up: “it just isn’t right for my list at this time.” It’s not you, it’s me. What a cop-out, and a lie, too, because even in teen movies the kid knows that phrase really means something is wrong with you. If this were a real camp crush story, now would be the part where I ran into the bathroom and locked myself into a stall to cry in gasping hiccoughs.

In real life, I mourned for a few days, then I stewed in the bitterness of being scorned, and then I got over it. I emailed my no-longer-dream-agent and asked for more specific criticism. She was kind enough to write back with more feedback, and though she thought the writing was strong and the book had potential and promise, it was just not a “perfect fit” for her.

What I realized is that it wasn’t a clichéd break-up line or a cop-out; it was the truth. I had been so sure she was the one, but she didn’t love my work, and we were, therefore, not a match made in heaven. I didn’t know that the right agent who was the perfect fit for me, who would fight for Hand Me Down in a way ex-dream-agent couldn’t have, was just around the corner, but she was. Just like people say when you get dumped, there are indeed other fish in the sea.

Our first crushes are rarely the relationships that last, but if we’re lucky, we learn from them. I will forever be grateful to the cool agent with the hot-pink heels for her valuable advice and for motivating me to get my manuscript in gear for submission. It was this heavily revised, nausea-inducing manuscript that my actual agent fell in love with just a few weeks later. If I hadn’t been rejected first, I might not have met my true agent-mate, the one who really got my book and my writing, the agent who responded to my first email in a day and believed in me from the start.

We are still happily working together today. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Pitch

I know there are a lot of fine writers who struggle endlessly to get a book contract and finally give up.  Many a good novel has died for lack of a home.

My perspective on what I had to do and how hard it was going to be came when I attended my first writers’ conference with the SC Writer’s Workshop in 2008. I learned more about the publishing world in those three days than I had in the previous two years surfing the web. 

Some conferences are made for craft and some are made for marketing.  Like many new writers, I put the cart before the horse and went to the one on marketing first.  But I learned a lot and I got hooked up with a truly wonderful critique group that has guided me through many beginners’ mistakes.

During the next two conferences I continued to rewrite my novel and perfect my pitch.  A pitch is that three minute summation of what you’ve written that might hook a perspective agent or editor.  The common scenario is what is called the elevator pitch. You’ve just gotten on the elevator on the eighth floor to go to your next workshop.  Standing next to you is Ms. Bess Agent from the OMG Publishing Company in Gotham City and your heart skips a beat.  You say, “Shazam, we’re delighted you agreed to attend our conference.  I’ve just completed my novel and I’d love to tell you about it.”

Being Ms Bess Agent, (and honestly I’ve found all the agents I’ve talked to at conferences to be extremely cordial), she says the magic words… “What’s it about?”

Voilà, opportunity just knocked.  Grab it!  You now have approximately three minutes for your pitch before the elevator reaches the lobby.  “My sixty thousand word romance novel tells the story of how Rover Wolf tries to seduce poor beguiling Mercy Flowers, unaware of the fact that she’s on to his dastardly dog tricks and plans to remake him into faithful Fido to fortify her feline fetish.”  Door opens and Ms Bess Agent says, “Sounds interesting.  I’d like to see the first chapter.”  BINGO.

Here’s where my opportunity knocked.  I was at a baby shower in Atlanta.  I never go to baby showers.  I mean neverSend a gift, stay at home and write is my motto. But this was for my grandson.  What kind of grandmother was I anyway?  So I put on a little lip stick, sucked in my stomach and climbed into a pair of panty hose.  At the refreshment table one of my daughter-in-law-friends says, Mrs. Remmes, let me introduce you to Ms. Bess Editor from Gotham City.”  My ears perk up.

“I’m working on a novel,” I say, watching her body language for any tell-tell signs of a seizure.   I imagine her eyes rolling back into her head as she thinks, Please God, spare me…not another writer, but she can’t help herself and she does what all good editors are trained to do and says, “Really? Tell me about it.”  I lunged into my pitch, promising myself I will shut up in three minutes and leave her in peace. After two mints and a cookie she says, “Here’s my card.  When you start looking for an agent, call me and I’ll give you a couple of good names.”

I did.  She did, and the agent she recommended signed me and sold my book in two weeks.

I know that few writers have had such luck.  This is not the typical story.  I had geared-up to spend a year or longer to find an agent, and at a baby shower a fairy godmother dropped her wand and it hit me on the head. I had gotten the long end of a wish bone.  The mints were laced with a hallucinogenic drug.  Who knows?  But my three recommendations to anyone hoping to publish are:   1) Go to conferences, 2) Get into a good critique group and 3) Polish your pitch.  I probably should add go to baby showers, but then you wouldn’t believe the first part.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Self Promotion as Self Reflection

by Anita Hughes

One of the greatest joys of being a mother is not having the time to think about yourself. As a mother you are so busy attending to scraped knees and elbows, broken bones and bruised egos, you don't focus on your own small dramas.

The same is true about being an author. The minute you turn on the computer and disappear into the world of your characters, you stop obsessing about real world problems like faulty appliances, ruined recipes or anything else that can derail your day.

 So it is a rude shock, like stepping out of a warm Jacuzzi into a cold shower to suddenly have to promote your book and talk about YOU. When did you first start writing? What is your inspiration? Does your story draw from personal experience? Why would I want to talk about ME when the purpose of writing fiction is to create an imaginary world and sweep me under the rug.

Self promotion, I have found, is very much self reflection. I am asked questions by well meaning interviewers that make me look at myself, my choices over the years, what I see for my future. What are my goals, beliefs, ideals. I can't simply answer: "I write so I don't have to think about those things!" I write so I can forget about war, famine, heartbreak and trauma and submerge myself in a world I control. Certainly, my characters go through terrible moments. Sometimes I cry while I write, but it is up to me to rescue them (or not) and shape the ending as I see fit. But what I have found as I fill out another author Q&A, is that in the process I get to know myself better. I learn what are my strengths and weaknesses, where I have come from and where I would like to be going. And that makes me a better writer. I approach my new manuscript with more confidence in my abilities, more energy, more excitement for what the future holds for my characters and myself.

No writer wants to spend the day gazing in the mirror (writers - like mothers - are not know for their glamorous wardrobe and makeup choices) but a little introspection now and then makes one wiser. So I am thankful for the opportunity to ask myself questions that have been lurking in my brain, hidden under the needs of my fictional characters and real-life children.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Are You Competitive With Other Writers?

The Inklings, a legendary writers' group.
You realize these guys knew how to party.
by Lydia Netzer

Writers, for centuries, have socialized with other writers. In salons, in retreats, artist colonies, as penpals, personal friends, friendly rivals, actual rivals. There is something about this writing life that draws like to like, so even though we tend to imagine writers as garret-dwelling loners, they actually do clump up together all the time. Maybe because no one else understands this particular brand of crazy. Maybe because they want to compare notes, not only to learn from their comrades but also to see how they measure up.

Our "Book Pregnant" group consists of 30 debut authors. As we've been going through this process together, sharing our news and asking questions and learning about the experiences the others are having, I've realized that besides the obvious (money) there are a multitude of comparison points authors can use to measure each other. Here are a few:

  • Covers. Do you have foil? Is your name bigger than your title? Stock photo or original art? How thick is your paper?
  • Blurbs. Were you blurbed by your buddies or did you draw in some strangers to publicly love you? 
  • Tours. How many dates? Publisher footing the bill? 
  • Giveaways. How many ARCs is your publisher putting out there before your launch?
  • Reviews. Are you getting reviewed in the New York Times? Or not?
  • Media. Where are you interviewed? Morning shows? NPR? 
  • Lists. Not just bestseller lists, but "Most Anticipated" lists, recommendation lists, Indie Next lists, award shortlists... the list of lists goes on.
  • Numbers. Did you know there are web sites where you can put your book, your friends books, and the books of everyone you know including Kafka and Nora Roberts, and then see side-by-side sales data in a handy graph? True. 
Not my actual sales figures.
With all of these ways that writers can one-up each other, all of the feelings that can potentially be hurt, and all the ways you can feel rotten about yourself by bathing in everyone else's success, you would think that our little group would be just a tiny bit fraught. That there would be a little bit of "Well, you may have gotten that profile, but I got that interview," or at the very least, "Damn, I wish I had that kind of print run." But I'm telling you, honestly, it's not like that. Not only is this group not like that, but I've been friends with other writers for most of my life, and while some of my friends have been insanely successful and others of us have not, I have seen my friends helping each other, helping me, supporting each other, cheering each other on, commiserating without eye-rolling, encouraging without comparing. It's really amazing. 

Why is this happening?

One idea is that writers have so many obstacles to overcome, so many external threats and potential "enemies," that it doesn't pay to attack each other from within the team. There are unimpressed reviewers, Goodreads users that give you one star with no explanation, Amazon coders that somehow leave your best info off your page, bookstore patrons that don't show up for readings in the rain, etc. Who needs to worry about other writers' snubs or sabotage? 

Crazy writer will bathe for Likes.
Another thought is that writers really do need each other to succeed -- for introductions, for advice, for recommendations, for instruction -- so once one has been helped, one is likely to turn around and help others. But what I've been thinking about lately is that possibly now in this online world of social media, where you need Likes and Retweets and Pinnings and Follows... you really can't survive on your own. Even if you're a loner, a tortured artist living in a cave, with no social skills and no deodorant, you better learn how to craft a cool status update, because your publisher is looking at your fan page, and you better have some engaged readers. 

You know what a hashtag on Twitter is, right? A hashtag is a word proceeded by a # sign, which creates a searchable, followable stream connected to a topic, group, or conversation. So if you use the #fallenwoman hashtag, you can click on it to find other fallen women. If you use the #bachelor hashtag, you can find other people discussing the show. If you use both, you can express your opinion about the cast, in a concise and Twitter-friendly way. If you use the #amwriting hashtag or the #mywana hashtag, you'll find writers joining together to support each other online. 

#amwriting was begun by Johanna Harness two years ago. It's an abbreviation of "I am writing" and its purpose is to connect writers to other writers around the world. You can read more about it here, or just jump on Twitter and search #amwriting to get a taste. #mywana is a tag that was launched by writer Kristen Lamb based on her book for writers, We Are Not Alone. She calls it the Love Revolution and you can read more about it here. I asked these two networking experts some questions about competition between writers and how the internet has changed the way writers interact. 

1. What inspired you to promote this hashtag? Was it seeing existing friendliness and collaboration between writers or was it seeing a dearth of it?

Johanna Harness: When I started on Twitter, there really wasn't a community of writers.  Agents had a lot of followers and there were pockets of authors who all knew each other, but it was difficult breaking into those groups.  I wanted a place where all were welcome, a place where it would be okay to jump into a conversation.  Twitter is a great medium for showing daily life. There is comfort in knowing that writing is frustrating and difficult and just a hell of a lot of work. Most writers have other gigs in their lives and still make time for words.  Just because the writing journey is difficult, that doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong.  Twitter shows that the real writing path is not magical.  It's wonderful some days and some days it makes your head explode.  That's normal.  I wanted a community on twitter where people would not feel so alone with that daily reality.

Kristen Lamb: Actually what inspired me to write WANA was that I saw a bunch of technology and marketing experts giving writers what I felt was flawed advice. They were well-meaning, but clearly didn't understand that writers are not car insurance and books are not tacos. Traditional marketing has never sold books...ever. And using Facebook as a new way to spam people is a bad idea.

I saw how writers could come together and support each other and they weren't doing that, at least not in a meaningful way that had power to eventually drive book sales. There was no reason we couldn't be one big family, leaning on each other and helping each other. Books are not so cost-prohibitive that people can't buy more than one, so there really was no reason for rivalry.

2. Do you think it's possible for a writer to survive the digital age *without* reaching out to support and network with other writers?

Kristen Lamb: No. I think the Lone Wolf writer is a romantic anachronism. Hemingway wouldn't last a minute in the new paradigm.

3. Conversely, do you think it's possible for a writer NOT to feel competitive with other writers? 

Johanna Harness: Yes.  I think it has a lot to do with how a writer experiences validation.  If motivation and validation come from within, writers are much more likely to be supportive of each other. 

Jealousy gets in the way of all kinds of relationships. If someone is jealous of my success and feels delight when I fail, that's not much of a friendship.  If that same person achieves great success and is only nice because she knows she's better than I am, that's no kind of friendship either.  I'm of a mind that we're all on individual paths.  We all struggle.  We're all working toward our goals. We can support each other and lift each other up and it doesn't diminish us.  Love inspires love. Jealousy inspires all sorts of nasty stuff.

4. Have you seen evidence of back-biting, invidious comparisons, put-downs and such on Twitter... without naming names? :) Or is it pretty rare?

Johanna Harness: Writers are no different than any other group of humans. I see it.  I distance myself from it. Anyone whispering ill of others to me is likely whispering ill of me to others.  That's not the kind of energy I want in my life.   

Kristen Lamb: I hate to say it, but the worst behavior and the most unprofessional behavior I have witnessed on Twitter actually came from agents. I have unfollowed literary agents who found it fun to hide behind a cutesy moniker and talk about writers like they were morons. They would whine that writers were unprofessional and then act like high school mean girls. I've seen less of that lately and that is good. I think many of them are realizing they need writers and that being unprofessional won't be tolerated. 

The only bad behavior I have witnessed from writers is the spamming. But, in fairness, a lot of "experts" are teaching them that blitzing people about their books is being a responsible professional. So in this instance I can see how I writer would mean well, but come off wrong. 

Agents mocking writers? There is no gray there. It's just wrong. But, again, I've seen less and less of that so that's a good sign.

5. Can you name some good examples of writers who give others hand-ups and help newbies, so I can give them shoutouts? :)

Johanna Harness: Recently the writers over at Beyond The Margins honored me with their Above and Beyond Award.  The best part of the experience has been getting to know the other nominees on the list.  I'd point you to that list for some really wonderful examples of community-builders. 

Kristen Lamb: Anyone you meet in #MyWANA. Also any of the WANAlums #WANA711 #WANA1011 and #WANA112 (WANAlums are blogging classes of mine who have teamed up). Piper Bayard @PiperBayad, Jenny Hansen @jhansenwrites, Marcy Kennedy, Patrick Thunstorm... There are just too many to name. 


What do you think? Are you competitive with other writers? Do you believe me when I say that writers can be purely supportive with other writers? Does Twitter foster comparison or foster collaboration? Have you seen the ugly side of a writing friendship? Leave a comment and tell us about it. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Publishing in the Age of Google Alert

            By Nancy Bilyeau

Occasionally when my red “smart” phone trembles in my palm, signaling the arrival of book news--perhaps welcome, perhaps not--I think of A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella Morpho Eugenia.

            Adapted into a fine film called Angels and Insects that ramped up its more-decadent plotline, Morpho Eugenia is at its core a mid-Victorian love story between an impoverished naturalist named William Adamson and a repressed governess named Matty Compton (wonderfully inhabited by Kristin Scott Thomas). Long before their feelings are made known to each other, when William can do nothing but admire Matty’s vigorous wrists, they hatch a plan to earn much-needed money: write books about insects. William’s is about ant colonies on the grounds of an aristocratic mansion where they are both ensnared; Matty’s is a fairy tale featuring same bugs.

            The two of them get busy researching and writing. And I know what you must be thinking: How could decadent plotlines exist in such a novella?  But this is the sublime A.S. Byatt, and yes, it gets kinky, including a passage about a family card game that spells out a sexual act not legal even now in any of the United States. To my point—William and Matty mail off their respective manuscripts to London. And more than a year later: results. William receives a letter saying, “We are very happy you have chosen our house as publisher and hope we may come to a happy arrangement for what will, I am quite sure, be a most fruitful partnership.” Moreover, Matty tells him she has quietly sold her insect fairy tale book and now has in hand a sizeable bank draft. With that money, they run away from the mansion in the middle of the night, heading straight for the Amazon, determined to study much larger insects for a number of years.
            Since the mid-Victorian age, there’ve been some changes in publishing.
            About six months ago--which would be a year after I’d sold my historical thriller The Crown to Touchstone/Simon&Schuster--someone savvy about these things told me to put a Google alert on my name. This was the best way to keep up with news on the book. I did so, and for several weeks was kept informed about the dessert recipes created and then published by a distant relative in Michigan and the high-school-quarterback achievements of an even more distant cousin. I was intrigued by an alert that led to news of someone with my last name being arrested and charged with robbing a Dollar Store in Kentucky. I pondered under what circumstances this would have seemed a profitable plan.

            My Google moment came when I sat at the bar at our local Thai restaurant, sipping a club soda while waiting for my take-out order. It was Friday night, there wasn’t much food in the house, and I wanted to surprise the kids with Pad Thai and their favorite duck with crispy noodles dish. My phone whirred, and I glanced at my Gmail account: “‘Publishers Weekly’ review of Nancy Bilyeau’s ‘The Crown.’ ”  I clicked on the link, excited. My first review! And then a cold and sour panic took hold in my stomach as I read the sentences once, twice, three times. It wasn’t a good review. There was no Pad Thai for me that night, and not much sleep either.
            Since that autumn evening, I’ve been reviewed in national magazines like O: The Oprah Magazine and Entertainment Weekly, in trades such as Kirkus Reviews and BookList, in daily newspapers and on more than a dozen blogs. The reviews of The Crown have been mostly positive. Oprah said, “The real draw of this suspenseful novel is its juicy blend of lust, murder, conspiracy, and betrayal.” It’s wonderful to read a sentence like that. Yet nothing can quite erase the dismay and disappointment I felt when I read my very first review in a Thai restaurant, with no warning from agent, editor or friend.
            I considered removing the Google alert the next day. But I decided, “No, put on your big girl pants—you have to be able to handle this.” And so when the Google alert trembled the next time, I clicked open my Gmail. I had roughly the same defensive stance as a boxer who’s suffered a powerful right hook, trying to ward off the knockout. This alert wasn’t even about me. That Michigan relative had produced an amazing apple crisp, and I burst out laughing.
            The next time Google came for me it was just after breakfast on Saturday morning—a giveaway of advance copies of The Crown just commenced on goodreads. I had no idea this was planned. But before lunch, I’d fired off emails to friends and relatives. My goal was to hustle 50 requests. It was absolutely thrilling to watch the number of people who requested The Crown soar to just over 1,000 in a week.

            More and more, the Google alerts were for me and not the chef or the football player: book reviews; an announcement that the first two chapters were posted on scribd; a news brief in Time Out New York about my upcoming reading and signing at a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. After my book was published on January 10, the alerts came faster and faster. Yet more reviews—Devourer of Books just named The Crown her pick for the month of January. Yay! A piracy website with a skull & crossbones as its emblem offered my book for free, a novel that took five years to write. Boo!
            Google knows no borders, and now that my novel is on sale in the United Kingdom I get alerts on reviews popping up across the Atlantic. Don’t get me wrong. Coming out with a first book is exciting. But there is much about publishing a book that is baffling too—and at times harrowing. Several times I’ve considered removing the Google alert that sends news updates hurtling into my world. Wouldn’t it be nice to search through the Amazon for unusual insects with William and Matty, oblivious of the latest news in book publishing?
But in the end I always accept that knowledge is power. It was Sir Francis Bacon who said it first, in Religious Meditations Of Heresies in 1597, proving that for me all roads lead back to the 16th century.

I feel confident that if Sir Francis were here right now, he would tell me there is no going back. Information must flow, and I must be ready for it, and never fail to respond when the news comes, which is more often than not through that sudden whirring jolt in a small red phone.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Last Gasp – That Ninth Month’s a Killer

by Sophie Perinot

Any woman who’s had a baby will tell you pregnancy is one month too long. Book pregnancy is no different. A month before your debut release (a milestone I marked last week) the suspense is killing you and your mood swings have close family members cowering in corners.

"You must be so excited!" People keeping saying that. Nice people. Well-meaning people. And YES I am excited. Nobody wants this book baby more than I do. It was harder to conceive than all three of my human children combined. But there are several other, less positive, emotions kicking around inside me as well. And I am ready to own up to them.

Fear. What if something goes wrong? What if my book falls on its face and drowns in a puddle of bad-reviews? What if nobody notices it was born at all—my due date arrives and there are no flowers, no congratulations. What if I show up at a Barnes & Noble to sign stock, the book isn’t there and some clueless, teen clerk asks me if I want to put one on order? The painful truth is hundreds of books come out every year (and that’s just counting those produced by the big six). They are all special and precious to their author mommies but many of them will sell less than a thousand copies and live and die unheralded.

Exhaustion. Forgive me if I am not my book’s biggest cheerleader at the moment. My ankles are swollen. My legs ache. I have been preparing for the “blessed event” for months now—starting way back in January 2011. Nobody tells you this when you start writing a novel, but book pregnancy (and I am considering signing your deal the moment of conception) is longer than human-baby pregnancy. In some cases it’s even longer than elephant pregnancy (does this book make me look big?).

There is plenty to do in the early months (edits, copy edits, page reviews, setting up your website, etc). But nothing compares, imho, to the madness of the last month. Lately I’ve been marching around the social media world banging a drum and making sure everyone knows I am book-pregnant and when my big day is. I’ve selected birth announcements in the form of colorful postcards for my friends to send to their friends trumpeting the arrival of The Sister Queens. I’ve emailed my publicist (lovely, lovely publicist) to make certain that the advance review copies are mailed to all the bloggers who will be hosting me on my blog tour. And (in addition to answering interview questions and writing blog posts until I can’t feel my wrists) I have been trying to “work ahead” on real-life tasks, because we all know what it’s like to have a new baby—absolutely nothing gets done around the house. Let’s face it my real kids are still going to want to eat even once the book baby gets here.

These stressors, mental and physical, have left me pretty darn crabby. Woe betides the husband who comes home while I am working away in my office and innocently asks “what’s for dinner?” I am also rather distractible. The ping of an email arriving on my smart phone can stop an event or conversation dead. Confession: I recently excused myself to go to the ladies room while at a restaurant NOT to answer the call of nature but because my publisher forwarded a review of my book. I simply could not imagine sitting through dinner in any sort of responsive manner while the review sat in my inbox unread.

Like a truly pregnant-lady, reminding me how lucky I am and how there are lots of other people who would love to have my problems does not help. I may give you a forced smile and agree but believe me honey, what I really want to do it kick you in the shins.

What gets you through the last month, whether you are book-pregnant or baby-pregnant, is the fact that an end is in sight. This book baby can’t say in here forever. It’s coming out. That IS nothing short of miraculous. And when the big day arrives, for a few blessed hours at least, all the work and the worry will be forgotten—subsumed in the pure joy of holding and caressing my beautiful creation. Then I can start worry about the next set of challenges (is it gaining enough weight/readership? Does it look funny to you?). Ah, the joys of parenthood!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

My Anti-Climactic Book Deal Day

by Mindy McGinnis

It happened. The day I'd dreamt about ever since I knew what a career was came and went and... I didn't feel much different.

To be clear - I'm not an OMG type of girl. I don't jump up and down, I don't overly-italicize things, and I certainly don't have a victory dance. I'm Irish, so I've got a barbaric YAWP in there, but it only comes out on certain occasions. Most of the time I keep the poker face on.

I'd been on submission for about six months when my agent, Adriann Ranta of Wolf Literary, sent me an email letting me know that somebody cared. A few somebody's, actually. So we were at auction, and it's a lovely place to be. I monitored my emails like a buzzard hovering over a sick mammal, but things didn't get terribly exciting until late afternoon. The offers came in, and I was stuck in what passes for traffic in rural Ohio - behind a combine.

I don't have a smartphone. My phone is in fact, a dumbphone (I have to manually spell the word "text" of all things), so I had to get home before I could check email. Once I managed that, Adriann and I fired off a few emails to each other discussing pros and cons and made our decision. And it was done.

I closed my laptop and looked around my house. I picked up dumbphone and called my mom but she couldn't find her phone (this is typical). I dialed my sister, who was already talking to someone else and didn't pick up (also typical). The boyfriend was at work. So, I scooped the litter and went to knitting class.

No glitter canons, no Hallelujah chorus, no really attractive men giving me armfuls of white roses. But you know what?

It was still damn cool.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I Think It's Love

Happy Valentine's Day!

Getting the call from an agent offering representation is kind of like signing up with the perfect obstetrician or midwife (or, this is a stretch, but since it's Valentine's Day … perfect partner in this baby making business?!). You have a feeling you could be pregnant, you want to find the best person to help you bring this baby into the world. The one that says, "Yep, you've got a book in there! And I can help."

photo credit: hugrakka's Flickr photo stream by creative commons license
As an unagented writer, I spent hours combing the blogosphere for stories about “The Call.” It was a great way to research the process. But these posts were also like little pep talks. Success stories gave me butterflies in my stomach. Realizing dreams, it seemed, wasn’t impossible.

In 2008, I read author Therese Walsh’s post on the fabulous Writer Unboxed blog: “Home Run! Therese Finds her Perfect Agent!” I knew Teri online and admired her determination, attitude, and transparency. I also liked what I saw on her agent’s website—who Elisabeth Weed had chosen to represent and what kinds of books they were writing. I added Elisabeth to my list, dreaming of when I’d send my first query.

In May 2009, I sent that query to the agent at the top of my list—Elisabeth Weed. I sent two more … just to be on the safe side. I was thrilled the next day to receive my very first partial manuscript request from Elisabeth.

My first rejection also came from Elisabeth Weed—one of the nicest I ever received.

There would be more. I queried several more months, not a huge number of letters, perhaps 25 or 30 in all. I received requests, each followed by another rejection. And I was getting a sense that maybe this manuscript wasn’t “the one.” While I loved the story, while the characters lived on in my mind and heart (still do!), I suspected it was time to move on.

Another story had started tugging at me and just wouldn’t let go. I’d learned a surprising bit of family lore, one line, basically, with no more hints of what happened: As a teen, my grandmother had fallen deeply in love with a young black man, and their families tore them apart.

Of course their families tore them apart. It was the 1920s. It was Kentucky and interracial marriage was illegal there. That was all anyone knew—none of the involved parties were living—so it’s all I’ll ever know.

But I began to imagine what might have been. I chose a time and setting slightly different from when and where my grandmother lived. I researched the area, laws, and anything else I could find on the subject.

In April 2010, I wrote the first 30 thousand words of Calling Me Home during a Backspace writing marathon, added another 45 thousand over several months, and in November, I did my own version of NaNoWriMo—NaNoFiMo: National Novel Finishing Month, to write the final 30 thousand.

After the holidays, I began revising in earnest. I set beta readers upon it, and after feedback from my marvelous critique group, some non-writers, and several more months of fiddling with the thing, I decided it was time to query.

When I sent my first few letters at the end of June, I didn’t query Elisabeth. I wanted to be sure my query letter was effective. I didn’t want to waste an opportunity. Because she was still at the top of my list.

I received a request for a partial immediately, and was thrilled, but by then, the last members of my critique group had read my manuscript. I realized I had more work to do. I was relieved I hadn’t sent more queries into the ether.

When I was ready to query again, this time in mid July, I sent my first letter to Elisabeth. I sent a few more a few hours later, just to be on the safe side. (Is this sounding like the movie Groundhog Day? Keep reading!)

I received a request for a partial from Elisabeth Monday afternoon, which I promptly sent. The next day, I received an email from Elisabeth herself. “I just read the first three chapters of Calling Me Home and think they are terrific! Will you send me the rest? I can't wait to see how this love story unfolds.”

Let me think about that ... OF COURSE I WILL! I sent it off late that night after madly making sure all my i‘s were dotted and t’s were crossed.

The next day, a published friend who had read and loved my manuscript asked if she could recommend it to her agent, who graciously agreed to read it. I believe this was providence.

Because when I let Elisabeth know another agent was reading, she replied that she hadn’t received my full. “Please send so I can read the rest. I'm loving it!”

Needless to say, I was allowing myself to hope at this point. Just a little. But trying to keep my cool. And I was also so very thankful I had a reason to check in with her and find out she hadn’t received my manuscript!

I heard from Elisabeth the next Tuesday by email, asking if we could talk by phone. Was I around the next two days? Of course I was. And was this … The Call? I was dying from anticipation. It felt like it was going to be The Call. But I wasn’t going to count my chickens before they hatched.

The next day, July 29, 2011, Elisabeth set me at ease almost immediately in our call with these words: “In case it’s not clear, I’m calling to offer you representation.”

We spent more than an hour on the phone, discussing my manuscript, how she saw it positioned in the marketplace, how she typically worked with clients, and so on. By the time we finished talking, I’d ticked all the questions off my “things to ask potential agent” list without even having to ask most of them. And though most articles you read say to take some time to think about the offer, I had a gut feeling. I told her, “I’m just going to go ahead and say now that I feel good about this. You’ve been my top pick from the day I sent my first query two years ago, you’ve answered all my questions, and I can’t see any reason not to say yes today.”

I sent the other agent a note letting her know that while I appreciated her offer to read and admired her for doing such a truly fabulous job for my friend, I believed I was making the right decision in accepting Elisabeth’s offer. She was gracious and full of good wishes.

Less than two months later, my manuscript, Calling Me Home, sold not only in the United States at auction to St. Martin’s Press, but in nine foreign territories. We’ve added a few since then, as well as some exciting foreign book club opportunities. Calling Me Home will be published sometime in early 2013 in the U.S.

It seems that gut feeling was right on target. I think it's love!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Welcome to Book Pregnant, a New Writing Blog by Debut Authors

Ring Ring! Published novel calling!
Image via Flickr user plenty.r
The call. You get it from your agent, or maybe you don't get it and there's an email instead, or you call her back, or maybe it's even a text (Are you sitting down?) that tells you this one all-important magical fact: Your book sold. The thing you've been trying to do, maybe for ten years or twenty years or since you were five or since college or since you realized you had something to say -- you did it. It's done.

In that one moment, your world slants, just a little, away from the way it was in the moment just before, and if you're lucky, it never slants back.

In the new slanted world, you're suddenly talking about copy-editing marks, and author questionnaires, and how to promote your novel on Pinterest, and whether or not to do a blog tour, and pre-orders. Meanwhile it's likely all your best writing buds are still talking about queries and excerpts and conferences. Maybe you have some friends that are published writers, but they're not all that interested in your squeals over your first check -- they've had dozens. They're not terribly excited about your first blurb -- they probably gave it to you! So where does the debut author turn to cheer and commiserate over all the new experiences that come along with a first novel?

Our Facebook group wanted to say hi. Hi, Facebook group. 
Book Pregnant was begun when two debut authors (Sophie Perinot and I) met on Twitter via mutual acquaintances, and found out how much we had to talk about. It was almost like, we realized, being a first time mom and having that support group of other pregnant mothers, due in the same month. While we had awesome mentors and charming agents and supportive friends, we really wanted to yammer and babble about this experience to others who were going through the exact same thing. So we invited a few friends, and they invited friends, and before long there were a couple dozen first time authors chattering away in a hidden Facebook group, filling screen after screen with cheers over pictures of first signings, condolences over disappointments or personal troubles, ideas for promotions, networking strategies, philosophical debates, jokes, and confessions. This is more than a professional network and more than a support group, and over the last few months, as we've started to meet up in real life at each other's events, and see each other through the roller coaster experience of bringing a book to market, we've become real friends.

This blog is our public outlet. Here we'll share what we've learned, tell stories from the front lines, pose questions about the developing world of authorship and publishing, and reveal what to expect when you're expecting... a novel.