Category Archives: Agents

The Cliff’s Notes Version of How to Be a Writer

A lot of my posts come from questions I get from aspiring writers struggling with some part of the writing process or another. The other day I got an email peppered with questions I had mostly already answered. However, it occurred to me that there might be others out there who, like this particular reader, who haven’t had the chance to wade through the 700+ posts here to find what they want.

So instead of cutting and pasting a whole bunch of links to essays in this side, I went for the short answer, knowing I would post the results in a kind of Cliff’s Notes version of this blog.

So here’s the short answer version of many popular writer’s questions. For more detail, see the rest of the blog.

(Note: questions in parenthesis are paraphrased by yours truly for the sake of brevity)

(Reader mentions different jobs he has had, including a recent stint in the military)

Thank you for serving in the military. I can’t thank you enough for doing that.

It sounds you have a lot of different experiences, which is a good thing. A writer doesn’t have to have experience in a lot of different jobs and rely solely on imagination, but I think experience helps. Your resume sounds a lot like my early one before I settled down.

(Reader asks about how one should go about tackling a writing project)

If you’re reading my blog, you’ve probably found tons of information about writing from my particular point of view. You should hunt up some blogs from other writers to see how they’re handling things. I’m a big proponent of finding out what works for you as a writer, because what works for me or another writer might not be your cup of tea. Plus, the way I write has evolved over the years.

I’m 39 and I’ve wanted to write my entire life but have yet to finish a book. I have multitudes of ideas streaming in my head with good ideas.

Yup, you’ve got it bad. Welcome to the club. Most writers have tons of ideas (I even do a writer’s seminar called “The Idea Is The Easy Part” to show how easy it is to come up with a concept for a novel). Our big issue is time to do something with those ideas.

I have a friend who is a brilliant idea man. He’s always coming up with a new idea for a book. His problem is, he gets these new ideas when he’s supposed to be working on another book, and he gets so taken with the new idea that he abandons his in-progress for the new idea. Those writers who are published learned to discipline themselves and pick one idea, working on it until it’s done. If the new idea is really good, it won’t go away.

I go out and buy notebooks and pens and write short spurts here and there.

I do that too. I have notebooks with notes and starts of books all over the place. It’s like buying a new notebook and/or pen validates the new idea. But again, that discipline is the key.

But I make excuses and think that I can’t make money doing that.

It’s hard. And it’s hard for outsiders to understand that, for every Tom Clancy or Stephen King, there are 1,000 writers like me who do it for the love of writing, and of course, for a shot at that brass ring.

Fortunately, with the advent of the Amazon Kindle and other e-readers, it’s become easier to make money on one’s work by self-publishing. Good money. One woman just signed a $2 million contract with a major publisher based on the Twilight knockoff novels she was self-publishing. But it needs to be good. Or shamelessly commerical.

Do I need an agent?

There’s a joke in the industry that you can’t get a book sale without an agent, and you can’t get an agent unless you have sold a book. If you want to get published by the Big Six, you need an agent. If you’re willing to go the self-published route, no. If your self-pubbed stuff catches on, the agents will find you.

The story of how I got my agent is on my blog. It helped that I went in through the Science Fiction/Fantasy Door. That genre is more open to new writers and unsolicited submissions than the more mainstream stuff.

How do I get a book contract?

By writing a darn good book. And you do that by writing and writing and writing and writing. Every time you write you get better at it. No anabolic steroids necessary.

How can I get a publisher to pay me while I write?

1) Write a darn good book

2) Sell it to a publisher

3) While you are marketing the first book, start on the next one. This way you can tell your publisher you’re working on a new book and they will understand that you’re serious about writing.

4) If your book gets buzz, or hits it big, or perhaps even breaks even, your publisher will want to tie you down with a multi-book contract. When that happens, congratulations!

That’s approximately the way to do it. Fortunately for us all, publishers want to make sure an author can go the distance and produce something both readable and salable before committing to their writing careers.

I’m sure some people have gotten contracts without going through some version of this, but they were either celebrities who could be hooked up with ghostwriters, or had established themselves as writers in another area (short fiction, journalism, etc.)

When you were writing the Angel’s Luck series what was your writing process?

It depends. The first book, Desperate Measures, was the first novel I ever wrote. During its writing I was going to college, getting married, and looking for a job. It was written piecemeal over the course of 4 1/2 years, and the original version was twice as long as what was published. While it was at market, I wrote A Death Of Honor, then The Mushroom Shift (about police work – I worked for a few years as a sheriff’s dispatcher), then The Company Man. By then I was a better writer and was able to hack the mess that was DM into shape.

The other two books in the trilogy I was under contract to write. I had said I was never going to write a trilogy, but the characters wouldn’t leave me alone. So I pitched DM to my editor as the first book, said a few words about what the other two books would be like, and Del Rey bit. I wrote those two as a full-time writer, and I treated it like a full-time job.

How many hours a day did you write?

Again, it depends. When I’m writing a novel, I tell myself my daily goal is 5 pages, and I take however long it takes to get there. Many days I’d get on a roll and write more in just a couple of hours. If I was having a bad day, I told myself I had to get through at least one page. More often than not, getting through the first page made it possible to write four more. But sometimes one was all I could struggle through.

WARNING: Telling friends and family that you are writing full time will often lead them to think that, since you are home, you are “not doing anything”, and are therefore eligible to do things like help them move pianos.

How did you find a decent Editor to read your work?

I was marketing A Death of Honor, and since it was Science Fiction, I was going the Slush Pile route (SF is institutionally more friendly to unsolicited submissions than any other genre – although romances may be this way also… I wouldn’t know). A bunch of smaller houses turned it down. A big house wanted it, but they wanted changes that I felt would have damaged the integrity of the story. My wife kept telling me to send it to Del Rey, and I kept saying no because they published Heinlein and Clarke – what would they want with me? She persisted. I gave in. And I can’t count over the years how many times I have been grateful for my wife’s encouragement.

I do want to write and I feel that is my talent.

If you really, really want to write, nobody can stop you. Not even yourself. All sorts of people have told me they wanted to write, but when it came down to it, no encouragement I gave could make them actually sit down and write. A few did and succeeded, but if they didn’t have that spark inside driving them, they never would have made the commitment. Many others tried and gave up, or ended up not trying.

I said that it took me 4 1/2 years to write Desperate Measures. That’s because I wanted to be a writer more than anything else. And I wrote whenever I could steal the time to do it. A lot of times it was a half-page, page, two pages here and there. It added up. When I finally finished, I learned that I could write a novel. I started to get an idea of how I worked as a writer. I learned that, every time I wrote, I got better at it. And I learned that, having done it once, I wanted to do it again.

And I’m still trying. I’m not where I’d like to be as a writer, either. But I haven’t given up because I know how much writing means to me, and I know I’d rather be writing novels than anything else.

So steal what time you can to pile up those pages and see what happens.


And that is Volume One of the Cliff’s Notes. Feel free to question or append in the comments.

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One eMail and Everything Changes

Okay, I’m going to admit something. I haven’t been straight with you all, because at the time a lot of this went down, it didn’t matter. Now, all of a sudden, it does.

At the end of last year, I was dropped by my agent. I can’t say that I blame him. I pretty much hadn’t written a word of use to him for at least three years, the time during which my mother lived with us. And for the two years before that, when my wife and I were checking on her at least twice a week. Add to that the fact that in the years before that, he was looking for thrillers to market at around 100k words, and I was wanting to genre bend a little, and the project I did it with, which he told me not to write, came in at 170k. Nothing personal, it was just business.

Now he was a good agent at a time when I needed one who did the kinds of things he did. And he got me into some good things. The ghostwriting gig that I still can’t talk about. The sale of the Pembroke Hall books to the Canadian film company that made my worst-selling novels my biggest moneymakers, even though nothing ever got filmed. The sales to Russia. But we had growing creative differences over the fact that he was trying to streamline the sales process by asking me to turn in 100,000 word thrillers and I was wanting to push myself as a writer and stretch out, poking and tweaking the conventions of genre.

I suppose if I have any regret about our nearly two-decade relationship is that I should have been the one to end it since I knew I was no longer of use to him. But in the context of taking care of my mother, it didn’t seem all that important.

So the end of 2008 was the end of an era, and frankly, I couldn’t have cared less. Over the last couple of years, writing had come to mean less to me than at any point in my adult life, and probably most of my adolescent life, too. I had other avenues of expression – writing and singing songs, which is confined mostly to my bedroom, and The Home World, the weekly webcomic I started in September of last year, and the plays I have been writing and directing for our church’s Vacation Bible School. I was too busy serving God to write much more than that.

Basically, writing career dead, stick a fork in it, it’s done. And I couldn’t have cared less. I had moved on. Other things in life were more important.

And then, two weeks ago, everything changed.

I opened my Gmail account to find a communique there with the subject line touching base re Film/TV rights. It was from a woman in Los Angeles, the sister of the woman who had bought the Pembroke Hall rights all those many years ago. She was looking for exciting new properties to represent, and her sister told her she ought to look into this guy named Joe Clifford Faust (okay, so his properties weren’t exactly new – but they were clever and innovative and unused).

This nice lady asked me about the Pembroke Hall novels and – surprise! – The Company Man, which hadn’t seen a movie nibble since my first agent tried to put a copy into the hands of Sir Ridley (only he wasn’t Sir back then, and he also didn’t want to get typed as an SF director, so his advance man took a pass on the book).

The next day we talked on the phone for 55 minutes. I mentioned A Death of Honor, along with a screenplay I’m starting to develop as a favor to a friend, and when the conversation was over, I had a new agent.

I also came away with an assignment: to write a bunch of synopses for the books she is going to try to convert to movies or TV series. Yeah, you read that right. She, like her sister, seems to think that the Pembroke Hall novels would make a good TV series.

While I was writing, I got on a roll and decided to send her a synopsis of the 170,000 word novel that my ex-agent didn’t want me to write that I need to whip into a final draft, just as a surprise bonus. To see what happens.

Funny thing. Reading the manuscript for that novel by way of getting the plot line in my head makes me realize that it’s my best novel ever, even a quantum leap over Pembroke Hall, which my ex-agent once said was a magnum opus for me.

Suddenly I want to finish that neglected manuscript.

Interestingly enough, all of this comes at a time when I can actually do it now, with my mother safe in God’s hands and the children having mostly flown the coop for college and points beyond.

When things like this happen, I prick up my ears and see if I can hear God laughing, because I know from events like this that he has a sense of humor. I’m reminded that his boy told us something about losing our life to gain it. Well, I gave up my writing life to essentially serve him, and now I seem to have gotten it back with a vengeance. I should also note that his boy could raise the dead, among other things. So resurrection of a career is a piece of cake.

Yeah, I got some work to do (on top of this year’s VBS play, a sci-fi extravaganza of sorts).

And that’s not the whole story, either.

Because yesterday I had a pretty remarkable day, too. But it’s late now (early, actually) – making that a story for another day.

Hopefully soon.

Agents and What I Know About Them (and how I got mine)

The debt has been called in. For more than three years, I’ve been saying that I would address the topic of agents, but I always found something else to write about, if I wrote at all.

Now the jig is up. I recently received an e-mail from a hard-working up-and-coming writer about just this subject, so what better time to answer it than now?

With this caveat: I got my first agent about twenty years ago. During that time, some things have changed radically. We’ll get into that when it comes up.

Given that, here’s what I know about agents, in a handy Q and A format.

Why do I need an agent?

Excellent question. Some authors, like Joseph Wambaugh, don’t have an agent, preferring to do all the sales and negotiation themselves (and Wambaugh is an ex-cop, so he might have a leg up on the negotiating thing).

Other authors want agents to use as a buffer between editors and themselves, putting the agent in the role of a go-between, bringing word of revisions wanted by editor to author, and conveying weeping and gnashing of teeth from the author to the editor.

Most of us fall in between somewhere. I would rather talk directly with an editor about creative matters and let the agent talk money. I think it makes for a more friendly working environment.

That said, I have an agent for the following reasons:

  1. I don’t want to worry about the money side of things. I let my agent handle that.
  2. My agent negotiates with publishers to keep rights that might come in handy later (e.g., film, foreign).
  3. My agent has sub-rights agents who market those retained rights to foreign countries and the movies. I don’t have the connections to do that myself.
  4. My agent thinks ahead on new industry developments like electronic rights.
  5. My agent has a line on what legal issues may befall an author and knows how to deal with or circumvent them.
  6. I occasionally get e-mails from folks wanting adaptation rights to my books. Some have money in their pockets, some are working on a wing and a prayer. My agent separates the wheat from the chaff.
  7. If I have a non-editorial problem with a publisher, I let my agent take care of it.

Other reasons: Some agents act as pre-editors since most editors are too busy to spend time on manuscripts and grooming authors like Maxwell Perkins once did.

Some reasons for not having an agent:

  1. Saving yourself between 10 and 25% of the money you get from the publisher

Is the percentage worth the services an agent provides? That’s for you to decide. If you’re an old horse trader from way back, you may not feel you need an agent. If you can’t even negotiate a curve, you may want to consider getting one.

Does an agent need to live in New York?

Back when I was looking for an agent, my answer was yes, or at least within easy driving distance. My logic was that part of my percentage was going to him to schmooze editors at lunch and be a physical presence in their offices.

Since then, I think the paradigm has shifted. Checking the Internet for literary agents, you’ll find that, thanks to e-mail, fax machines, cell phones, and frequent flier miles, they now live everywhere. There are agents in Tampa, Florida and Phoenix, Arizona.

Me, I’m still a little old school. I think I’d lean toward a New York agent. But if I found one whose vision matched mine and it turned out they lived in Walla Walla, I wouldn’t instantly write them off the way I once would have.

So how do I go about finding an agent?

Pretty much the same way you go about finding a publisher. Get a copy of Writer’s Market or Literary Marketplace on your desk. Then write the best query letter you can and make sure you have the best manuscript you can write to back it up.

As you start looking, you’ll see that there are a whole lot of agents out there. How to sort? Well, like publishing houses, you can quickly weed out agents who wouldn’t be interested in what you’ve written. Sending a manuscript titled Blood, Guts, and Thunder to an agent whose authors write titles like Love’s Unexpected Tickle is a mistake.

One thing to consider: who is an author that writes like I do and who is his/her agent?* Query them. If it’s a bigger agency, you might not get them, but you might get an assistant… and the power of the Big Name Agency.

Which prompts another question. Big agency or small? With a big one, you do have that name power. But you also have a large client list and risk getting lost in the shuffle. Smaller agency? No name, but a hungrier agent and more individualized attention.

On the other hand, if you get a new agent at a big agency, they can be hungry, too.

So how do you find an agent? The same way you find a publisher. Painstaking research, lots of postage stamps, and a thick skin.

Do I have to have sold a book first in order to get an agent?

That’s the great Catch-22 of the industry. You have to have a sale under your belt in order to get the attention of an agent, yet you can’t sell a book unless you have an agent.

Actually, I don’t think it’s as absolute as all of that. I know writers who sold a book first, and I know writers who got an agent first. There are still publishers out there who are friendly to unagented manuscripts, so a great piece of writing can still go in through the slush pile and make it into print. And there are agents who will take a look at unpublished writers.

Other tactics: some writers have sold a book, and before negotiating the contract, ask the editor for the name of a good agent and try to snag one that way, guaranteeing them at least one commissioned sale. On the other side of the coin, some agents look through magazines and other places where short stories congregate in the hopes of finding a new client and make the first approach. But you’re not reading this because you’re waiting to be discovered, are you? Good for you.

It helps to approach the agent with credentials. Where an editor might want to know what qualifies you to write the book in question (You’ve written The All-Carb Macrobiotic Diet and you’re… a plumber?), an agent may be more interested in your writing experience. What kind of writing have you done in the past that lets you think you can pull off this novel?

Huge Hint: If you’re a first-timer, don’t even bother with a proposal for a novel you haven’t written yet. Write the manuscript first. Crossing the finish line is a huge task, and gives you a leg up on Everyone In The World that has An Idea For A Great Book.

Anything else I should know about agents?

Well, in my search experience, I found that I was generally treated worse by agents than publishers. Yes, I followed everyone’s guidelines and presented my most professional package. But I must have had a string of agents who had bad days and felt the only way to deal with their stress was to send a little spleen and sarcasm my way. Editors, on the other hand, were always polite, even when sending form rejections.

I think this may be due to the fact that, while Editors need Writers, the Writers need Agents (and Agents need Editors, making this a nice Rock-Paper-Scissors triumvirate). Your position in the food chain determines the demeanor you see. I once walked away from selling my first novel to a certain editor because we had creative differences over how the book should begin. But she was always gracious and kind, and kept the door open to work with her in the future. A similar situation with an agent might result in a slammed door.

It could also be because editors can triage authors at the manuscript stage, whereas agents have to deal a little more directly with personalities. If you don’t believe me, take a look at some of the horror stories shared by Miss Snark, literary agent. In one memorable post, she explains why agents are so humorless in their responses: “More than half the time, you aren’t joking.”

What about other media like comic books? Would it be better if I had a creative team in place?

You’re getting into an area I’m rather vague on, even though I’ve done it, I loved doing it, and would do it again at the drop of a hat.

What I do know is that the comics industry is a lot like acting, screenwriting, and working as a DJ at a radio station: unless you’re a superstar (Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman), if you get a little big for your britches, there’s always someone waiting in the wings who would do the job for free just for a shot at the big time. So no matter what you do, you must tread lightly.

As far as going into a comics project with a creative team in place, I really can’t say. I do know that there are agents who work the comics industry, and some book agents who cross over or are interested in crossing over. I suppose this would make you much more selective during the sorting process.

As for me, I lucked out. If I want to get back into comics again, my agent is interested in working in the field, so I wouldn’t have to start a search. But he may be more exception than rule. Sorry I’m not of more help here.

So okay, how did you get your agent?

All right. You’ve cornered me. At long last, here’s the story.

I published a book first. But I tried – I really tried – to get an agent without them knowing that I had published a book.

Here’s how it happened.

After selling A Death of Honor to Del Rey, I wrote a novel about small town police work called The Mushroom Shift and got it into the slush pile circuit, whereupon I started The Company Man. Some time went by and a publisher was dragging their feet on getting back to me on Mushroom, so I decided that maybe I should get an agent to move things along. After all, I knew I could sell SF books, but maybe mainstream was a different animal.

As a subscriber to Writer’s Digest, I occasionally got mailings from the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. They were pushing their critique service, but I went around that and queried them about Mushroom. I can’t recall exactly what I said, other than the fact that a publisher was looking at it, but I remember not playing up the fact that I’d sold a novel to Del Rey. My thinking was that I wanted them to take Mushroom on it’s own merits (I should note here that I was still in my twenties and still had some vestiges of creative idealism).

But fate being the funny thing it is, here’s what happened. A Death of Honor came out. The Del Rey staff loved it, and whenever someone came into their offices, they pushed a copy into their hands. One of these hands belonged to Bill Haas, who at the time was a Foreign Rights Agent for Scott Meredith. He read the book and loved it.

Then one day Bill went into the office of a colleague. He looked down and saw a manuscript on the desk. He looked at the cover page and said to the agent, “Do we represent this guy?”

The agent said, “No. It just landed on my desk. I’m supposed to take a look at it.”

Bill Haas said, “Look real hard. I just finished reading this guy’s first novel and it’s terrific.”

The manuscript he saw was, of course, The Mushroom Shift. The agent’s name was Kurt Busiek (yes, Kurt Busiek the comics writer and creator of Astrocity – this was during a period when he tried to get out of comics and into publishing).

And so I ended up with an agent, not in spite of A Death of Honor but because of it. Had I been older and smarter, I would have bludgeoned them with ADOH, but hey, it worked out.

When Kurt went back to the comics (taking me with him for my brief stint writing for Marvel’s ill-fated Open Space series), I was handled for a year by Carmen Ficarra. When Carmen left for Penthouse magazine (and tried to take me with him – saying I could write any fiction I wanted, as long as it had a sex scene in it – I politely declined), an agent named Joshua Bilmes asked to represent me.

Joshua became a Vice President when Scott Meredith died, and a year later when the Scott Meredith Agency itself died, Joshua called me and asked if I wanted to come along to his new one-man shop – JABberwocky, A Literary Agency. I did.

Thus, I’ve had experience with big shops and small, without ever actually looking for another agent.

So that’s my look at agents, fragmented as it is. I hope this helps. And if I have been so badly out-of-touch that a lot of this information is sour, then, well… that’s what the comments sections is for.

Listening:
I know I’ll never make it on the cross
Spent my days looking for what my daddy lost
He was too proud to have a boss
Sold himself out then he couldn’t afford the cost

(via iPod Shuffle)

*If you’re one of these “but nobody writes like I do, my novels are unique unto themselves, I’m a real American Original” types, then you’d better re-up your subscription to Writer’s Digest for another year and keep working at thinking commercial. After all, I can say that only I can write Joe Clifford Faust novels, but I also work at making them salable. Say it along with me: We are in this business to have fun and make money… and there is no sin in making money.