Tuesday, November 24, 2015

THE AGENT QUEST

post by Mary Gillgannon

I’ve often heard the relationship between a writer and an agent compared to a marriage. For the relationship to work, you and your agent have to have similar goals, be able to communicate well and ideally, have that little something extra called chemistry.

But if the author/agent relationship is like a marriage, then finding the right agent is like getting a date to the prom back in high school. You may yearn for the hunky star quarterback or the gorgeous head cheerleader, but ultimately have to settle for the nerdy but cute guy in your chemistry class, or the pretty, quiet girl who sits next to you in English. For a beginning author, the top-tier agents are probably out of your league. Although it doesn’t hurt to query them (if they accept queries; a lot of the big names don’t). But realistically, established, well-known agents usually have all the clients they want. Even if they have the time and resources to take on more clients, they’re interested in authors who are already published and moving up in their careers.

For the beginning author, the key to the writer/agent dating game is finding someone who is willing to take a chance on an unknown writer. And that’s probably going to be someone starting out, either a “junior” agent at an established agency, or someone who has recently started their own agency. But going with someone new has risks. They may have been a successful editor or have other publishing experience, but that doesn’t mean they will be a good agent. Or, more importantly, a good agent for you. And one of the other axioms of the agency business is: A bad agent is worse than no agent at all.

How is that possible? I had two agents who were wonderfully supportive and who said everything I wanted to hear. They were willing to talk about my career and my future at length, but they never sent out my manuscripts. I’ve had numerous friends with similar experiences. Why would an agent do that? Well, some people love books and authors and think being an agent is a perfect fit for them, but they don’t like to sell. And ultimately, that’s what being an agent is. It’s selling. And it takes a certain kind of person who is willing to do that. Selling means risking rejection, which is something almost everyone dislikes. I had another agent who was willing to try to sell my books and face rejection up to a point. But when she got rejected too many times, she dumped me.

There are other really bad things an agent can do. Like steal from you. In the typical publishing contract, all monies paid by your publisher go through your agent. They get your advance and royalty checks, deduct their commission and send the balance on to you. Or not. Although uncommon, there have been cases where authors had to go to court to get the money owned to them.

More common are agents who charge hundreds of dollars for editorial services as a requirement of representation, but who have no expectation of selling your work. They will tell you they need to fix your manuscript before they submit it. In this day of self-publishing, paying for editorial services is perfectly legitimate. But it gets tricky when those services are connected to the agent relationship. You need to investigate whether the so-called agent makes most of their income from editorial fees, or from commissions on selling books. Hiring a “book doctor” is one thing. Finding an agent to represent you in the marketplace is another.

I’ve made finding an agent sound like a veritable minefield of potential problems. But a lot of things in life are like that. Consider it like buying a car. If you can afford to go to a top dealer and buy the latest brand-new model, your risk that you will be dissatisfied goes down substantially. But in the writing world, often the only people who have that option are authors who are already published and successful. The rest of us have to go to the used car dealer and take our chances.

Even then there’s a lot we can do to ensure we will be happy with our purchase. We can do research and find out what other consumers have experienced with that particular dealer, as well as that make and model of car. There are a lot of sites on-line that provide information on agents and give authors’ experiences. On the whole, writers are a very generous bunch and natural communicators. So if we have a bad experience, we eagerly share it.



Mary Gillgannon, 2015
NOVEL WRITING UNIVERSITY--Free learning opportunity!

For more tips and pointers on finding the perfect agent, join Mary and fellow authors Amanda Cabot and Joanne Kennedy for the second Novel Writing University program on January 30th at the Laramie County Library in Cheyenne.

This day-long session will also cover query letters and contract negotiation. For more information on the program, contact: mgillgannon1@hotmail.com


Mary Gillgannon is the author of sixteen novels, including a Celtic historical fantasy and historical romances set in the dark age, medieval and English Regency time periods. Foreign editions of her books have been published in China, Russia, Germany and the Netherlands. She is married and has two children. Now that they’re grown, she indulges her nurturing tendencies on three very spoiled cats and a moderately spoiled dog. When not writing or working—she’s been employed at Cheyenne's public library for over twenty-five years—she enjoys gardening, reading and travel.


Recent Releases:
Call Down the Moon, a reincarnation/time travel romance
Wicked Wager, a Regency romance

You can also connect with Mary at:
Website: http://marygillgannon.com
Blog: http://marygillgannon.blogspot.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MaryGillgannonAuthor
Twitter: https://twitter.com/MaryGillgannon

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

It's an Editor, Not the Voice of God

by Susan


A good editor can help pull the weeds from your writing.
But they shouldn't replant your entire garden.
A good editor can pull the weeds that are choking your writing. They can find the places where it doesn't flow and suggest relevant additions, places where you may need to go deeper.

They are also human. They're not always right.

I've done my share of overzealous editing and had to apologize afterward. As they say, the greatest drive is not to love nor hate, but to edit ...change ... revise ...alter ... modify ... rewrite another's copy. I am not the only person who's taken it a smidge too far.

The trick as a writer is knowing when to listen, when to push back, and when to walk away.

Not long ago, I shared my decision to withdraw an essay from an anthology due to an excessive demand for rights. That, however, was not the only issue. Heavy-handed editing was the other.

It's OK to push back sometimes.
As the revisions went back and forth, and the conversations took place by email, I felt I was pushed into an agenda that was not mine. I wanted to focus on the personal experience while they had a political bent. I had the feeling they had an ax to grind, and they wanted me to at least whet the stone for them. I found my words making a point I did not want to make.

I was frankly relieved I had another reason to walk away and didn't have to fight that fight. I do not regret it.

On the other hand, I had an editor contact me wanting to publish a poem, provided I agreed to some revisions. My first reaction was, "No, no, no! Mine, mine, MINE!!" Mercifully, I didn't respond in that state. On second review, they were right. I accepted their guidance, and they published the poem.

So how do you know what to do? The first step is to do what's recommended between drafts: let it rest. Set it aside for a day. Read it with fresh eyes when you're not smarting from the implication that your writing is less than perfect.

Then ask yourself a few questions. Are you simply resisting for the sake of resisting? Many of us have encountered the writer in a group who asks for a critique, then rejects every suggestion on the spot. Don't be that person.

But are they merely pulling the weeds, or replanting the garden completely? Does it no longer sound like you? (Ideally, it should sound like a better version of you.) Are they pushing you to a conclusion that's not yours?

When an editor suggests revisions, give their suggestions thoughtful consideration. They have greater experience shaping words into a finished, publishable piece. You won't lose your identity as a writer if you accept some changes.

Editors are also human. They're not always right. It's OK to push back. It's OK to walk away. It's your decision.



Tuesday, November 10, 2015

CRITIQUE GEEK

post by Lynn



There’s nothing like being on the receiving end of a good critique. I also relish the job of critiquing the work of my writing buddies.

I’m currently in Week 9 of a 10-week online writing course: Writing the Personal Essay, offered through Creative Nonfiction. I am learning lots and working hard—so much so my creative muscles are starting to burn. I love it.

And my fellow students are amazing:

A Pakistani-born physician mining her experiences as a breast cancer survivor;

A mechanical engineer trying to build his shards of memory into something solid;

A British mother living with her Syrian husband in the Gulf who struggles to fit writing in between cleaning bottles and “sucking mash potato from the inside of the high-chair belt lock.”

And many others. A lot of good essays are being developed and bandied about.

CRITIQUE GEEK

This class has reminded me of how much you can learn from critiquing the work of other writers. Our instructor, Barrett Swanson, calls them “peer reviews.”

But answer me this: why is it that when we read somebody else’s writing, we can spot the bumps, wrinkles and glitches, yet they are invisible to us in our own works? Why, why, why?

Here are some things I have run into while reading the essay drafts of my classmates. Each “mistake” I discover is a blessing as it reminds me what to do/not do in my own essays:

WOBBLY WRITING
“A question often lurks at the heart of a personal essay. What don’t you understand? What can’t you do?...”
 - Adair Lara 
The hardest part of writing an essay seems to be finding the center.

In each of my peer reviews, I usually have a list of “what this essay is about” because it seems early drafts have a tendency to wobble off in many directions.

For example, in an essay by a woman who moved from Scotland to the U.S. as a child, the list of “what this essay might be about” included:

  • Your emotions about the ocean 
  • Your emotions about your ex-husband 
  • The ways that becoming American changed your family 
  • Your brother’s rise and fall 
  • How your brother’s death estranged you from your adopted country 

While you don’t have to zoom in on one single theme, four or more possible themes—each with a centrifugal force of its own—bounces the reader off a lot of walls. Ka-thunk—the brother; ka-thunk—the ocean. Ka-thunk—the ex-husband. You get what I’m saying?

I always point out that each item on the list could probably be the center of its own essay. One draft equals many opportunities!

Dinty Moore, in a Writer’s Digest article about writing reader-friendly essays, uses a streetcar analogy to discuss the importance of being clear about your destination:
“An essay needs a lighted sign right up front telling the reader where they are going. Otherwise, the reader will be distracted and nervous at each stop along the way, unsure of the destination, not at all able to enjoy the ride.” 
Clear destination—smooth ride—enjoyable reading experience.





CLICHÉ
“Words have been used too often; touched and turned, and left exposed to the dust of the street. The words we seek hang close to the tree, we come at dawn and find them sweet beneath the leaf.”
- Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room 
“Cut to the chase” and “ace in the hole” and language of that ilk really does water down the story. I know this in theory, but when I encounter stale phrases in these essays from my class, I am re-inspired to avoid them—not like the plague, but like a car ride with a diarrhea-prone Pomeranian.

Here's a resource for us all: The ClichéSite. It lists hundreds of clichés to avoid, organized A to Z.

Note: clichés are allowed in dialogue, since we can’t control what our characters have said or will say.

Finding fresh language takes effort, but we owe it to our readers. After all, they are taking time out of their busy lives to consume our words. Let’s give them something fresh-picked instead of words that have sat on the counter way too long.

ENOUGH ALREADY!
“When you lose simplicity, you lose drama.” - Andrew Wyath 
Many of the early drafts of essays tend to go on too long and over-explain things that the reader “got” a long time ago.

I am reminded that every scene, description and scrap of dialogue must be vetted. If it doesn’t add to the targeted theme, it should be subtracted from the essay.

A GOOD CRITIQUE IS A PRECIOUS THING

I appreciate all the missteps that my classmates have made, because critiquing their essays helps me to be a better editor of my own writing.

Fortunately, a couple of people in my class (and the instructor, of course) have worked really hard on reviews for my essay drafts, and that is a very cool thing.

I have committed all of the afore-mentioned mistakes and more. My peer reviewers gently point them out to me, which allows me to approach the next draft with a much clearer vision of what needs to be fixed.

Lest you think I am too harsh on my classmates, I always start my peer reviews with what I liked best about the essay (in great detail, quoting from their work), and end with a call to push on to the next draft.

Writers need all the encouragement we can get!

What about you? Do you think that critiquing the work of other writers has made you a better writer?



Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Wheel of the Year: A Writer's Workbook


by Susan

Having attended her workshops and retreats, when I heard Linda M. Hasselstrom had a book on writing out, I knew I needed it.

The Wheel of the Year: A Writer's Workbook provides 16 seasonal essays on writing with accompanying suggestions and exercises. Linda divides the year into eight seasons, not four, so the book covers a span of two years:
Eight seasons, instead of 12 or only four, seem to correspond much more closely with the way the natural world arranges itself around us, creating the rhythms of our lives. Eight seasons more fully describe the subtle ways that the natural world changes throughout the year no matter where one lives. Organizing my writing life around the seasons that influence my body seems practical to me. On these eight occasions, I am reminded to particularly notice the natural world and its works and study how my writing is part of that world.
I consider Linda a mentor, and have benefited many times from her wise advice and from the copious handouts she gives to retreat-goers. Like many writers, I struggle to to balance my life commitments with my creative side. In the preface, I was particularly struck with her thoughts that our tasks and obligations are part of our writing, not a detraction from it:
I define the mundane world as the one most of us inhabit, with floors that must be vacuumed, toilets to be scrubbed, and the same dishes and clothes to be washed over and over and over again. These are the tasks writers often cite as the cause that they do not write, but I believe we can find rejuvenation for our writing in them. 
My friend and fellow writer Kathleen Norris has written several times, most notably in The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and "Women's Work," of the meditation that can be accomplished while doing these chores. She says that the "rejection of the sanctity of daily tasks was self-defeating in the long run," serving to alienate a woman not only from the wisdom of her mother and grandmothers, "but from the pleasure of cooking, serving and eating some very good food." Caring for a household is caring for those within it, respecting their lives and your own. Certainly this labor is a worthy subject of poetry or any other kind of writing.
In the seasons of the book, we just entered Samhain on October 31, considered to be the beginning of the Wiccan year in some circles. It's a beginning of sorts for me: I was born just before the end of October. "Women's work" takes on added weight when you think of the significance of the harvest:
Linda with her pumpkin harvest
In mid-October, when I seized any excuse to go outside on warm days, I gathered the last of the tomatoes and pulled the vines. I stored the pumpkins, onions and potatoes and added their leaves to the compost bin. Pulled the pea and bean vines and stuffed them under the berry bushes for mulch, to catch snow this winter. 
In days gone by, my prehistoric country ancestors spent these same days in harvesting their garden and bringing cattle and sheep down from their summer hillside pastures to sheltered stables. Just like the ranchers around me, they were harvesting hay to feed the animals during the winter. Some of the creatures were slaughtered for winter sustenance; in pagan times each death was dedicated with thanks to the gods of harvest. Fields were gleaned of barley, oats, wheat, turnips and apples because the ancients believed that on November 1, fairies would blast the growing plants with their cold breath. Peat and wood for winter fires were stacked high beside the hearth and in sheltered locations outside. Everyone in the family worked together baking, salting meat and making preserves, storing enough food so that the so the tribe could survive the winter.
Today, we don't generally worry that if we don't prepare adequately for the coming darkness that we won't eat. Yet, there is something to be said for preparing ourselves as writers for the dark, knowing it will again turn to light:
Every ending, though, is a beginning. The gates of life and death open together. A writer's observations at the ending of this season may grow into new work, a new writing life. To fend off the darkness of spirit that may descend on you in winter, make notes now and create a writing schedule to pursue each week, each month until the light returns. 
I look forward to delving into Samhain with Linda and experiencing the coming seasons with her through this book. I anticipate it will become one of the favorites on my writing shelf.

---

With 15 books in print, Linda M. Hasselstrom writes and conducts writing retreats in person and by email from her South Dakota ranch. Her most recent nonfiction title is The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook, 16 essays with writing suggestions and resources. Her latest poetry book is: Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, poems with Twyla M. Hansen, Nebraska state poet. Find her at www.windbreakhouse.com/, and follow her on her blog and on Facebook

Excerpts from The Wheel of the Year used by permission of Linda M. Hasselstrom.