I got an agent! (Part One)

I made a big announcement on social media yesterday: I signed with a literary agent!

Since I’ve already had seven books published, some of you might wonder if I’ve already published seven books without an agent, why get one now? Or maybe you assumed I already had an agent.

I tried to get an agent with my first novel about a decade ago. Even though I workshopped my query letter and had my book critiqued by a professional and several beta readers, I didn’t get a single request for a partial or a full after almost a year. Not deterred, I researched smaller publishers who took unagented submissions. I submitted to a few of them and got a contract. One contract led to many more over the course of eight years.

My desire for a literary agent and a major publishing deal waned as I released more books with small publishers and built my fanbase. I was having so much fun writing and connecting with the readers that I didn’t want to pause the journey to query agents. I also enjoyed the extra money! Traditional publishing moves very slow and I had too many books to write and too little patience to wait years!

A combination of factors contributed to me changing my mind: Spending more time with traditional authors and following their successes, watching my very good friends enter the query trenches and emerge with an agent they loved who believed in their talent, and my own career and fanbase not taking off/building as quickly as I wanted it to despite working so hard. I yearned for more marketing support, but mostly I wanted a partner/advocate (agent!) to help me navigate my career. I decided that after I fulfilled my contract with my current publisher, I was going to query my next novel. Unlike in the past, I wasn’t happy with the status quo. Timing is everything and I finally had the patience to wait.

I began researching agents even before I finished the first draft of the book. I used Query Tracker, Manuscript Wishlist, Publishers Marketplace, and Absolute Write to curate a list of agents who were open to queries and seeking submissions in romantic comedy, contemporary romance, or fun women’s fiction. I looked at each agent’s sales history. If they were a new agent, I looked at their agency in general. I created a list on Twitter of just agents to keep track of the types of books they were seeking and to get a general sense of their personality. I checked comments on Query Tracker for response rates. I stalked their reputations on Absolute Write. Although the pitch and bio parts of my query letter never changed, I tailored my first sentence to each agent, and I prepared the introductions ahead of time. If they’d tweeted about seeking more romantic comedies, I wrote that. If my book was similar in theme to one of their client’s, I mentioned it. I was very strategic in who I queried, and I wanted each agent to know there was a reason I chose them. Even though my manuscript wasn’t completed yet, I participated in Speed Pitch at RWA 2018 in Denver and met more than 10 agents and editors who invited me to send them material upon completion of the book. I knew this wouldn’t guarantee me an offer of representation but being able to put “RWA Speed Pitch” in the subject line of the query would at least get me noticed in the slush pile.

When the book was finished, I did what I always do—gave it to my beta readers. They knew I wanted brutal honesty and they gave it to me. My critique partner read it about four times—before and after the betas—and each time she pulled more and more out of me. I was exhausted. I hated her sometimes. But mostly, I was so grateful she helped me take the manuscript to a new level. Agents constantly implore writers not to query until there is nothing more we can do without their help. My support system helped me get there.

Now the book was ready, but I still had to nail the query letter and synopsis. And I thought I did. Many times. Only to be told by several people that they still weren’t good enough. The letter wasn’t “hooky” enough. The synopsis didn’t pull them in. I whimpered, I pulled on my hair until my scalp hurt, I screamed. I took my frustrations out on the friend who was helping me the most: “The book is about what the book is about! If it’s not a big enough hook, I might as well give up now!” This friend took it in stride, as true friends do. She assured me that the book had an amazing premise and hook and that I just needed a better pitch. Then she implored me to ask our other friend, one who works magic with marketing copy, to help. And she did! She read the entire manuscript and helped me tweak both my query letter and my synopsis so that everything she adored about the book shined through.

With a polished manuscript, a solid query letter, both a one-to-two-page and three-to-five-page synopsis, and a list of vetted agents in hand, I was finally ready to start querying! I was pumped!

I was also scared out of my freaking mind!

Spoiler alert: I got an agent! But come back tomorrow for part two and I’ll share how it happened.

Idle October

I sent my latest book to three beta readers this weekend after already doing a heavy round of edits with a critique partner. There’s nothing left for me to do right now besides wait—something I’m not very good at.  I asked my beta readers to try to get the book back to me by the end of month, but if I have to wait longer, I will. Honest, thorough, constructive criticism from trusted and unbiased third parties is critical to me for crafting a tight, well-paced, engaging, and sell-able book, so my self-imposed deadline is flexible. With the book temporarily out of my hands, October is kind of open for me, and I’m not one to remain idle for too long. I’m doing a manuscript critique for a new client (learn about my editing services here), I’ll work on my next book, and I suppose I’ll relax.  What? I know. Crazy, right?

I’ve decided to say yes to all social invitations (within reason), when I often think twice to make sure I leave room for writing. I’ll reach out to friends I haven’t seen in a while. I’ll probably give online dating another try, although I truly hate how casual the exercise has become and don’t have high hopes. Does anyone know an available, intelligent, funny, kind, attractive man around 39-53 so I don’t have to join Ok Cupid or Plenty of Fish? Anyone? I didn’t think so.

On a bright note, I’ll be a featured author at Saugatuck Storyfest, a three-day celebration of writing taking place from October 12th-14th, and organized by the Westport Library and the Westport Public Schools. If you’re local and around that Sunday morning, join me at Staples High School for an author breakfast. It’s general admission with no advanced ticketing required. I’ll be joined by authors Jamie Brenner, Marilyn Simon Rothstein, Fiona Davis, Lynda Loigman Cohen and more. We’ll be discussing our writing process, what’s new in our respective genres, authors who’ve inspired us, and what we are reading now. I would love to see you there!

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That’s all for me for today, but I’m also hoping to be more active on the blog this month.

Famous last words

Why I love constructive criticism?

Can you -show- not -tell- her

 

Criticism is most often thought of as a negative. Who wants to hear that their outfit is unflattering, their singing voice is out of tune, they lack rhythm when they dance, are a horrible kisser—that in sum, they suck? As a person, I much prefer compliments to insults, and I really don’t like when people provide unsolicited opinions, especially when they are unfavorable. But there is a difference between flat-out insulting someone and offering them constructive criticism—insulting someone most often serves no purpose but to make the person who delivers the jab feel good, but constructive criticism is usually delivered with the hope and intention of helping someone get better at whatever it is they are doing.

I don’t like insults, but as a writer, I have learned to LOVE constructive criticism, so much so that I seek it out from people I know won’t hold back. It stings to receive negative reviews of my published novels, but I have learned to embrace negative feedback for my drafts. I didn’t always have such a lovefest with constructive criticism. I took it in stride and learned from it, but I credit loving it to one of my author friends who, when she asks me (or anyone) to provide feedback, she asks us to rip it apart and she means it. She never gets offended or hurt by it and, to the contrary, is excited about the hours or days of revising ahead of her because it means her finished product is going to be even better for it. At the end of the day, we all want to write a top-notch book and sometimes it takes (more than) a few tries to achieve it.

When I hand a manuscript off to my beta readers  and later my developmental editor, there is a small part of me that hopes they’ll come back and say, “This is perfect. It’s the best book I’ve ever read. Don’t change a thing.” But the fact that I choose extremely critical beta readers and ask them to be completely honest with me belies that desire. I know these readers will spot things in the manuscript that, as the author, I can’t see anymore because I’ve lost objectiveness or I’m too close to it, and they will bring all of them to my attention. They won’t stroke my ego for fear I won’t like them anymore. They point out pages where the story might drag. They might tell me that I’ve lost my characters voice on Page 43. They remind me that my character’s friends and families have lives too. They tell me when my character is being too bitchy even for her or when she’s uncharacteristically behaving like a doormat. My beta readers show me the places in the manuscript where I need to flesh out how a character is feeling or what is going on in the background. They remind me to use my five senses. What does it smell like on the school bus? Are they eating anything at the restaurant or just talking? They say, “Your characters blush too much” and “Stop using the word ‘beam’ so much!” “This character is supposed to be mean, she hasn’t really done anything to evidence that yet.” “This character seems kind of crazy. Is that your intention?”

I seek out these comments before the book is published because I’d so much rather hear it when it can still be fixed than after the book is up on various platforms, and readers are writing reviews that say “The characters blush too much,” “The story dragged in the middle,” “The main character never thought about anyone except herself.” I don’t always agree with my beta reader’s comments and I trust my instincts, but I’ve learned to see the difference between not wanting to make a change because I’m lazy and tired and not wanting to make a change because I truly believe the novel is better off without it. But either way, I would rather know how readers might react and be given the opportunity to fix things rather than be blindsided by a bunch of reviews that say the things my beta readers and editor were too bashful or afraid to bring to my attention.

In the same vain, I have a side business of conducting manuscript critiques for other authors and I am extremely critical in my work. I tell my potential clients this up front. I would never attack their work or provide feedback in a cruel manner, but they are paying me to help them write the best book they can and I can’t take their money without pointing out every potential weakness I find. What they do with it is up to them, but I like to assume other authors will want to hear everything negative a reader might say while they still have time to fix it.

One reason my later books have been stronger than my earlier books is because I have honed my writing skills and become a better writer, but another reason is that I have embraced negative feedback on my unfinished product and purposely relied on tough critics to tell it like it is.

And that, my friends, is why I love constructive criticism.