Getting Into a “Closed” House

An issue came up in the comments about my recent catch-22 post. Christine asked about “closed” house editors (those who do not accept unsolicited or unagented submissions) who go to conferences and request materials or open up submissions to conference attendees only.

Editors do not rely solely on agents to bring them fantastic material. They are always on the hunt. Just like agents, they love the possibilities of the search, the thrill of discovering something brand new and phenomenal. I know plenty of editors who read blogs and websites, scout literary magazines and otherwise keep their antennae up. This includes going to conferences and picking up potentially talented writers. When agents and editors are at conferences, our role is very much the same: hone in on the cream of the crop and get their submissions. There’s even a similarity to how editors and agents treat submissions from conference attendees. Sometimes we reject outright, sometimes we reject the particular project but leave the door open to receive future work, and sometimes we take that writer on and develop them.

The key difference, though, is that agents are, inherently, more free to gamble. We have more time and resources (and incentive…a lot of agents work on commission, while editors get a salary…both go above and beyond the call of duty all the time, but agents do have an extra hunger) to develop raw talent into something saleable. Editors have bandwidth for this as well but they have all sorts of other things to do, projects already on their list to edit and lots of internal office duties that most writers don’t even lend a thought to. So they will sometimes pass on something that needs work (or pass it along to an agent friend), whereas an agent might dig in and really shape it into a great book.

Here’s what I said to Christine in the comments:

Yes, editors who attend conferences will sometimes tell attendees to send them submissions (usually a query or ten pages, sometimes for a limited time window like 3 months). Sometimes editors will also requests manuscripts based on a meeting or consultation with a writer. So yes, there are ways to get into closed houses by meeting editors at conferences.

However, as an agent (and as an agent, obviously, I would argue the merits of agents), it is my job to help writers get their manuscripts to an “editor ready” level. Sometimes these conference connections result in a direct offer from an editor. More often than not, though, they don’t. I’d much rather have a writer come to me and say “I met with So and So at a conference and want to get my manuscript in shape before s/he sees it,” than, “I met So and So at a conference and they passed on this already.” An unagented writer has less idea of what “editor ready” means, is all.

***

For a lot of unagented writers, meeting an editor at a conference seems like the Golden Ticket. If you do have this opportunity, though, I strongly urge you to query some agents as well. If you keep getting form rejections or no response, or if any of your requests come back with the same general feedback…do go back to the manuscript and give it some more elbow grease.

Agents have one goal: selling a book to an editor. So if agents keep rejecting your book, it’s a really good sign that an editor will probably reject it as well. Your chance with an editor (as with an agent) is sometimes a one-time opportunity, so you really do want to make sure your work is in fantastic shape. An agent, obviously, would be a great asset in determining whether or not you’re going to compete with everything else that editor has in his or her inbox. At least think about trying for an agent, even if you do have an invitation to submit from a conference or another opportunity.

How to Pitch

Going to conferences always gives me inspiration for blog posts! This past weekend, I was at the San Francisco Writers Conference to meet writers, and there was a good crowd of kidlit people there, which is always nice to see. This conference, and many others, does agent consultations.

Consultations work like this: writers sign up for a time slot (3 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, etc.) with an agent or editor at a specific appointment time. At other conferences, there’s a free-for-all where agents and editors are just sitting at tables and writers have a certain amount of time to pitch them before a bell rings. Whether it’s run with appointments or in this “speed dating” style, the two scenarios have one thing in common: me, sitting behind a table, listening to pitches.

And once you hear writer after writer pitch, you learn a few things about how writers pitch. Here’s a quick list of do’s and don’t’s in case you ever find yourself in a face-to-face pitching situation.

DO:

  • Do present your story quickly and don’t go into unnecessary detail.
  • Do leave yourself wide open to answer questions should the agent or editor have them… don’t be so blinded by rattling off the pitch you’ve memorized, because you’ll miss the parts of the story that raised questions from your audience… and questions can give you valuable insight into what about your pitch worked or not.
  • Do answer questions and try to think of it as a conversation, not a monologue.
  • Do give yourself time to hear the agent or editor out afterward, don’t talk for the entire time.
  • Do bring a card or some materials with you, just in case.
  • Do take notes while the agent or editor is talking, you’ll likely be nervous and won’t remember what they said unless you write it down.

Now, for the important stuff. DONT:

  • Don’t interrupt an agent or editor’s question if it comes in the middle of your pre-rehearsed speech, keep an open mind.
  • Don’t try and make an editor or agent request the project, especially if they say it’s not a fit.
  • Don’t make the editor or agent take any of your materials. It’s good to bring them but lots of people don’t take stuff home… respect that wish.
  • Don’t be nervous or read the whole time… talk naturally and make eye contact… try not to read from cue cards or notes too much… it’s YOUR STORY… you wrote it… you know it.
  • Don’t make ME read anything. I personally cannot read in a consultation environment. It’s loud, there’s too much going on, I can’t concentrate. I always like to read samples later, when I’m in my own environment and can concentrate. You can ask me to skim something or to look over your query letter, sure, but don’t ask me to evaluate your writing on the spot. First, I personally have very little control over my face and can’t hide my emotions well. I hate reading in front of writers because I know they’re scrutinizing my face for a reaction. If their writing is bad, I don’t want to make a funny face and offend them, so it’s best not to put me in that situation. The only thing I can ever tell when taking 2 minutes to look at a writing sample is whether it’s good or not, but I would never just tell a writer that judgment because a) everything is subjective and b) saying “this is good” or “this is bad” isn’t helpful at all.
  • Don’t put so much pressure on yourself.

This last point is really important. Folks, here’s the dirty secret… pitching tells us NOTHING about your writing. Pitching and writing are two very different things. You could have the worst pitch in the world but your novel could be amazing. Or you could have (as is more often the case) a crackerjack pitch and a lousy, boring novel. So my decision to represent you won’t hinge on your pitch. Heck no. It hinges on your writing.

And I always ask for you to send me a writing sample (unless the project is obviously not for me). You can stop worrying about “making me” request it. So don’t freak out about the pitch. We’re just two people who love books, talking. We have lots in common already.

A consultation is just your chance to get some feedback on your pitch, to hear some questions and reactions about your story, a chance to ask an agent or editor a burning question, and practice for talking about your writing to publishing people. It’s no more complicated than that, so don’t make it into a panic attack. I think this is the healthiest attitude a writer can have when approaching a pitching situation.

ETA: For more information on “pitchcraft,” a term trademarked by literary agent Katharine Sands, please pick up her very helpful book MAKING THE PERFECT PITCH, an invaluable guide to writers.

Polish the Entire Manuscript

Here’s an interesting trend I’ve noticed in queries versus the full manuscript. At my agency, we request the first 10 pages along with the query in our submission guidelines. That’s great for me because, if I like a query, that means I can start reading immediately and continue (I hope) to enjoy what I see.

There’s only so much a person can tell from a query. A writer could’ve had someone write their query, could’ve workshopped it relentlessly with other writers, could’ve polished it for years. There’s just no guarantee that the quality of writing in the query will match the quality of the sample. And query writing is pitchy and explanatory by its very nature — quite the opposite of prose. Only the manuscript matters, after all. So I like to see a little writing before deciding to either reject or request.

Lately, however, people have been sending more and more polished writing samples in those first 10 pages. On the one hand, it’s great because everything looks good. On the other hand, it’s a horrible trend because after those first 10 pages, or 15, or 20, the manuscript tends to fall apart.

Why? Conferences, critique groups, writing workshops and the like usually work with the first 10, 15 or 20 pages of a manuscript. It’s a manageable enough chunk and the writer can learn a lot from getting it critiqued. Also, conventional wisdom goes that the first pages are the most important, so they get a lot of focus. Those writers who use a lot of resources like conferences and workshops end up with freakishly well-polished first chapters… and then are left to their own devices for the rest. And the agents who read these types of first pages/chapters are tricked over and over again, only to become confused and frustrated when we see a noticeable decline in quality.

Here’s the bottom line. Are you especially proud of your manuscript’s beginning? Great! You’ve accomplished a lot. Now, though, you have to put that same amount of work and excruciatingly close attention into every other page of the project. If it starts out great, we’re only expecting it to get better, not worse, when we read the rest. The last thing you want to do is disappoint.

Teenage Perspective Cheat Sheet

One of my favorite parts of SCBWI (where I took no pictures, because I am made of #epicfail, by the way) was Krista Marino’s voice workshop, where we dissected and discussed what an authentic teen voice is. One of the keenest insights came when she invited her author Frank Portman (mastermind behind KING DORK and the forthcoming ANDROMEDA KLEIN) to talk about his songwriting for his band, The Mr. T Experience (better known as MTX).

Now, full disclosure time: Frank Portman didn’t land on my radar with his brilliant YA debut novel, far from it. I was a fan long, long ago. When I was 14-15-16-17, I’d pile into a friend’s ride or drive my junker Ford Taurus up and down the San Francisco Bay Area and go to MTX shows. (There’s a fangirl picture of me with Dr. Frank, in fact, that I tried to find for you guys, where I’m wearing a leopard print coat, a rockabilly dress, an Avril tie, knee socks… all the trappings of good teenage fashion sense, believe you me… It’s probably best that I seem to have misplaced it, on second thought…)

Dr. Frank and Krista made a very good point during the workshop. Writers, remember:

Teens aren’t stupider versions of adults. They’re just as smart, just as emotional, just as perceptive… they’re simply lacking the experience and perspective that most adults get in the process of living more years on the planet.

And, since your character will change over the course of your story, your narrative is just one way they’ll get some different perspective and evolve as people, right? Excellent. In the meantime, as you’re fleshing your characters out, MTX songs make an excellent primer in teen voice and angst.

Have you forgotten how desperate guys are to find a girl, any girl who likes them/wants to talk to them/can stand looking at them? Do you remember the sting of feeling completely alone and invisible to the opposite sex? Listen to the hilarious “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” off of Our Bodies Our Selves.

Have you forgotten the tremendous roller coaster of first love? The ups and downs and the dizzy compulsion to make it work despite any and all common sense? Try “Who Needs Happiness (I’d Rather Have You)” from Revenge Is Sweet, And So Are You on for size.

Do you remember the ecstasy of finding the one person who understands you? The relief of discovering an oasis amidst the torture of high school? Listen to “Thank You (For Not Being One of Them)” off of Love is Dead.

If you think your voice is lacking authenticity, if your teen emotions aren’t ringing true, do yourself a favor and pick up a couple of Mr. T Experience albums. And yes, this is extremely, extremely gratifying for my 16 year-old inner fangirl. Who knew my nerdy MTX fandom would pay off career-wise? You can check out their record label’s minisite by clicking here. You can also check out Dr. Frank’s website.

Writing Conferences: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

At some point in every aspiring writer’s life, they will ask themselves: should I invest in a conference? That’s how you should phrase it, anyway. It is an investment: of time, of money. A lot of people report feeling more committed and professional after an event.

Here is an easy list of pros and cons of conferences, in case you’re on the fence about going to your first or going again. Use this list to keep your expectations in check (very important).

Cons: Why You Might Not Want to Go To A Conference

  • Expense: Conferences are expensive. The conference fee (usually between $100 and $500 dollars). Hotel. Airfare. You’re usually looking at about $1,000 bucks if you go to one of the larger conferences outside of your home state. Some conferences, though, do offer scholarships. It’s always a good idea to ask. Smaller conferences and  regional SCBWI days are a good alternative if cost is a huge factor.
  • Intimidation: This might be one of the first times in your life you’ll be meeting real, walking, talking agents and book editors. This makes some people more nervous than excited. My advice: try as hard as you can to get used to the idea. We’re the people you want to work with. And we’re just people who love good books. Look! We already have something in common!
  • Other writers and workshops: For some more advanced users, conferences are frustrating because some of the other writers operate on a really basic level. For some complete newbies, the advanced level of other attendees might be really scary. Workshops at conferences are also a mixed bag. One time, I was at a conference where someone raised their hand (totally unrelated to the discussion at hand, mind you) and asked what the difference was between fiction and non-fiction. Color me underwhelmed! It’s best to go into it eager to make new friends and expecting to learn something (but not have your mind blown) from the workshops.
  • Crazy opportunists: Conferences are rife with crazy opportunists, or people who hawk their projects to anyone who will listen. These are the people you hear about, sliding their manuscripts under the bathroom stall to a terrified agent. You’d be wise to avoid these folks. If you ARE one of these folks, don’t waste your breath/time/money. These tactics are much more “cautionary tale” than “success story.”
  • Unrealistic expectations: It is very, very rare that you will spot an agent from across the room, leap all over each other like Romeo and Juliet, and ink an agency contract by the end of the weekend. Writers connect with agents and editors all the time. But don’t expect it to happen. You will most likely get your heart broken if that’s the only reason you’re going. And don’t, whatever you do, show up with 10 copies of your full manuscript, all nice and printed out, and try handing them out. Nobody will take them. It’s ALWAYS best to query after a conference or, if you make a connection with an agent or editor, to send them a follow-up e-mail. I repeat: nobody will take the 300-page brick of paper off your hands right in the middle of the hotel ballroom. Don’t try it.

Now for the good news! There are tons of reasons to go to a writers conference.

Pros: Why You Should Go To A Conference

  • Agents and editors: Most people, people really serious about launching their careers, go to conferences to network. Forming bonds with other writers is great but…at a conference you can meet (and impress) some agents and editors. Saying “I met you at so and so” really does catch my busy eyes when I’m combing the slush.
  • Motivation: A near-guaranteed aftereffect of a writers conference is that you will get new ideas and get really pumped to write them. Don’t take your meanest writing block to a conference and expect it magically fixed, but you’ll be impressed with how motivated you feel.
  • Other writers: Yes, you’ll probably make some friends! Friends are good!
  • Critiques: Conferences are great for getting your first critique or pitch session in with a real, live publishing professional. Yes, they cost money. But the way I figure it, you’re already spending a lot of cash. What’s an extra $50-$100 for a critique? Skip lunch and dinner and opt for sandwiches from the corner store, if you have to. You’ll get to sit down with an agent or editor one-on-one and talk about your work. You might even get a request for more material, if your work is really polished.
  • A change of pace/scenery: Sometimes, a conference is great just because it doesn’t feel like your real life. You feel like you’ve just vacationed in Writerland and that’s a nice way to recharge your batteries.
  • Self-confidence: Every little bit helps, right? Well, after a conference, a lot of people get much more comfortable with the idea of writing, the logistics of becoming more committed to their work. It can work psychological wonders and, if you haven’t figured it out already, writing is a mental and emotional challenge for the ego.

So there you go! Literally! Go, if you feel compelled to.

For kidlit writers, I highly recommend making it out to a national SCBWI conference at least once. More info here: SCBWI. I prefer the summer one in LA over the NYC winter conference, though maybe I’m biased because the shorter flight has lured me. Seriously, though, it is the longer-running one and, puzzlingly, seems to attract more New York agents and editors. If you can’t make it to one of the national conferences, do go to your regional SCBWI chapter’s events. Some excellent chapters throw amazing conferences, like the Nevada SCBWI chapter run by Ellen Hopkins. Why I like SCBWI events: all the people you meet are into kid’s books. Every single one of them. So you’re not sitting next to a cozy mystery/romance thriller writer at lunch.

With most other conferences, you have to watch the list of participants and speakers like a hawk. Seriously. Do your research. Google everybody. Figure out where in publishing they are. The last thing you want to do is spend all that time and money and show up at a conference populated by non-fiction or adult fiction agents and editors. Make sure at least a handful of children’s book professionals will be there. The benefit of zeroing in on the kidlit people at an adult conference, though, is that you’ll likely have more face time with them as one of the few children’s writers in attendance.

So no matter which conference you choose, take this list to heart and take the plunge. It’s worth it at least once in every writer’s life.

And, of course, I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t point you all to the Big Sur Fiction Writing Workshop, put on by the Andrea Brown agency, that’s coming up December 3rd through the 5th! It’s an amazing weekend of small groups, in-depth workshops, close attention from faculty and, of course, lots of chances to network and meet writers, agents and editors. Click here for the website!

The Reassurance Query

So, I was talking to a writer today and they said something many writers have thought before:

I wish I could just query agents, even if the book isn’t finished yet, just to see if they like my idea and if they’ll request it.

As and agent and as a writer who has done the reassurance/ego-stroking/tell-me-I’m-not-crazy-with-this-book-idea query, I say unto this writer and all others pondering this same path: Don’t. Do. It.

I know you will, against my advice. I know that writers misjudge the words “I’m ready” all the time. I know it’s part of my job to read reassurance queries and gently hint to writers that they may not be ready for publication yet with every rejection I send. I know that the most resounding lessons are learned through experience, through querying, through feedback. I know. But this way, I feel like I’ve at least said my piece about it.

First, let me say that I know why you reassurance query. It would be so very nice to know that an agent likes your idea and whatever sample pages enough to request more of your manuscript before you sink a year or two into writing something that could go nowhere. But here’s the problem: they might request more of your manuscript…and what will you send them?

Nobody wants to hear about the really awesome Christmas present they’re getting…in July. I assume that you’re querying me because you have a book you want me to sell. My job isn’t to stroke your ego, at least not until you’re my client and we’re working together. I can’t be expected to give feedback to everyone who sends along an idea. Don’t clog up my inbox with queries for things that aren’t done, just because you want reassurance that you’re on the right track.

If you need reassurance, get a critique group. If you need reassurance from someone in the industry who’ll be a good judge of whether your project is saleable or not, go to a writers conference and pay for a critique. At a conference, at least, you’ve paid for my time and I’ll happily oblige. Maybe find a freelance editor. See if any agents or editors or industry types are auctioning off critiques or giving them away on their blogs.

Most of these options, as you might guess, cost money, but such is life. If you don’t have an agent or a finished manuscript yet, you can’t expect someone in the industry to make you feel better for free. There are not enough hours in the day and, besides, I can’t really tell how good your project is until I see it finished. An idea and a snappy first 15 pages are one thing…the execution of that idea and the rest of the pages are what will either make you or break you.

But again, I know humans. And I know writers. And sometimes humans and writers are even one and the same! (Just kidding!) So I know I will get reassurance queries for as long as I have a slush pile. It’s part of the service I provde, and at the end of the day, I can make peace with that.

The Importance of Reading for Writers

I cringe when I think back on a conversation I had a few summers ago with an executive editor from a very large publishing house. I was at this conference as a writer, before I entered the industry from the business end, and blathering about a manuscript I was working on, a YA about a girl whose sister died.

As one of the only children’s writers at the conference, I definitely had a lot of this editor’s time. On this particular occasion, I used my limelight to open my big mouth and blab something along the lines of the following:

There are so many books out there like THE CLIQUE, ya know? All fluff and no substance! What I really wanna do is, like, write a book that’s deeper than that. One about real emotions and stuff. There’s nothing like that out these days.

Ha! Haha! Hahahahahahaha! Excuse me while I choke on my coffee. Boy howdy was I ever young and ignorant.

I think the word I was groping for is: “literary.” And, if you’ve been in a bookstore lately, you know that it’s impossible to turn around without bumping into a highly literary, emotionally charged YA book or two thousand. Death, drugs, divorce, heartbreak, YA has it all.

Now that I’ve been on the other side of the table and reading slush, I’ve seen ignorant statements like mine repeated by many authors. “There are like, totally no books about (insert totally common and well-represented theme or topic here).”

That’s called not reading enough. There are so many books out there that it’s impossible to read even a thousandth of one percent of your way through the shelves at a bookstore. More of them come out every day. While the average adult has abysmal reading habits, a writer has no excuse.

The work published by others is our only textbook when we’re honing our craft. Ideally, writers in any genre should read as much as they can, inside their genre and outside. In kidlit, writers shouldn’t just stick to fantasy or historical or literary, or even their age group, for that matter, but experience all the wonderful offerings on the shelves.

There are those writers who think their work will be corrupted by reading while they write. That makes little sense to me. More often than not, it’s these kinds of writers who convince themselves that there’s never been a YA book about a main character grieving over her dead sister. I guess I can understand this attitude if you’re reaching for something experimental with your manuscript, but not if you have commercial aspirations, like a lot of writers do. I can say for certain that my writing has improved immeasurably since I started reading more.

Instead of feeling intimidated and viewing already published work in your genre as “competition,” view it as a learning exercise. Read, make note of what other authors are doing. If you spot things than could’ve worked better in a story, boy howdy, you’ve got material for your own manuscript! It will make you look even savvier if you can query an agent or editor and mention some “comp titles,” or works in the same vein as yours. Because all editors and agents know that a book like yours exists out there, somewhere. No idea or book is absolutely, completely unique. And that’s a good thing! Even better, if previous books like yours have has sold well, that’s great news for you and your project.

So read a lot, read widely and read well. You’ll pick up new ideas, realize things about your own writing and feel like you belong in a community. And unless your novel concept is way, way, way, way out there, like zombies in the world of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE*, for example, keep your mouth shut in front of executive editors until you know what the real market for work like yours looks like.

* Just kidding! Someone already did that. Introducing PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES.