Monday, April 29, 2013

Signs you are close to getting a literary agent!

How do you know you are getting close to signing an agent?

Let's assume you have queried widely, gotten the usual hodgepodge of responses including some Rs, some No-Responses, (more and more of these lately) some requests for Partials and Fulls, and a few letters saying that so-and-so "has left agenting to become a dental floss tycoon." (Ok, so I had a hankering to make a Frank Zappa reference; but I have received several letters indicating that so-and-so left agenting, and, in one case, that an entire agency closed its doors.) So far, so good, but you are still not close, unless one of the agents who requested a full calls you and offers. This can and does happen, but very few writers have this easy of a road. For the bulk of us, we will get a few "not right for me" notes, a few NRs, and, hopefully, a few personalized notes which document what is wrong with your ms.

As agents have gotten busier and busier, there are fewer of these "helpful Rs," and more of the form Rs and N-Rs. (Even after a ms has been submitted.) I can certainly understand the N-R at the query stage--after all, the agent didn't ask you to query--but I have a hard time with the N-R at the ms stage. (They asked you to send the ms!) But, no one asked me, and I am hear to tell you that approximately 1/3 of all my requested submissions resulted in not so much as a form R. That, my friends, is life in the writing industry. But I digress! I was trying to stress the great value in a helpful R. Cherish them! Pay attention to them. And for heaven's sake create a folder of them so you can remember who sent them.) You know you are getting closer to signing an agent when more and more of the rs are helpful, and fewer and fewer are N-R or Form Rs.

As I mentioned before, I have written three mms. The first I never submitted--even I knew it was bad--and the second I spent over a year with in the query/submission/revision process. I thought I was close, but indeed I was not. I was fooled by the number of requests I had for the ms; in all, close to 30 P/F requests. How could I not be close with that many you ask? Answer: that kind of response rate from your query and sample pages indicates very clearly my Q and sample pages were good enough. But it does not speak to the publishability (I made that word up) of a ms. This is where you have to learn to read between the lines. Example:

Dear Peter: Although I enjoyed (your ms title) and thought the writing was strong, the thriller market is tight right now and I am afraid I am going to pass.

translation: Have you considered taking up pottery?

Dear Peter: I have now had the opportunity to look over (ms title), which I read with interest. Although I think the project has a lot of promise, I am not enthusiastic enough about it to offer representation.

translation: My dog could write something better than this!

I say this because agents are nice people, so I have to say it for them. However, anything original or personalized is a good sign, even if it may not seem so:

Dear Peter: your ms intrigued me and I like your voice, but I couldn't get past ....(insert one of many flaws).

translation: You can write. Revise the living hell out of your ms and send it back to me.

I realize the agent didn't specifically ask for a revision, but that does not mean you can't send one. One of the agents that ultimately offered me representation sent me something like the above after she first reviewed the ms. I revised and resent, got more feedback, and revised and sent again. Then I got a phone call (very exciting, always indicates a high level of interest) and another e-mail looking for more changes, which was the first time she had actually invited me to revise. Another R + R (revise and resubmit) and then finally an offer. Of course, by this time I was having similar exchanges with several agents and I knew I was close. Agents are busy. Agents only make money when they sell a ms. If she doesn't believe there is a good chance your ms can be sold, she isn't going to waste her time. When agents are investing their time in your work, you are close. And note there is a difference between reading your Q and sample pages and really poring over your ms on multiple occasions.

Ok, I have taken up enough of your time. Thanks again, and please share the link with your Canasta group. Please request me on FB and follow me on Twitter (@phogenkampVT) I appreciate the comments and your attention. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The ten things I learned from a rejected manuscript, No.s 6-10

6) Kill your darlings! This is an old editorial expression I simply love. (I think it was spoken with me in mind.) The darlings are the lines you love, the ones you thought were so clever, the words that set you apart as a writer, that define you as an artist. Problem is, the agents and the editors are going to hate them. Why? Because you are supposed to be telling a story, not showing off your wordsmithing. Please don't take offense: if I were to be given a month's prison time for every such transgression, I would be serving ten consecutive life sentences with no chance of parole.

7) Agents and editors hate prologues. Ok, hate is the wrong word, substitute despise, loathe, or detest. Resist the temptation to write one. It doesn't matter that your favorite author always starts with a prologue; she is a published author. The funny part: I don't know why agents hate them, I just know they do. I put a prologue in my first two mms which are gathering dust on the shelf; my third ms didn't have one and received a half-dozen offers.

8) A good premise atones for a lot of sins. Message: find a good premise. Don't have one? Write a few short stories as you wait for the bolt of lightning to strike. It's hard to get your debut novel published, and getting harder every year. Put the odds in your favor by having a great idea around which you can build your book.

9) Your first manuscript is not going to get you there. Scrap it, and use everything you learned to write a better 2nd ms.

10) A bad manuscript written by an author with a good platform will be more successful than a good ms written by an author with a bad--or in my case, no--platform. This is a universal truth about NF, but it is more and more relevant for fiction as well. Why? Because novelists are now expected to help promote their books, and a good platform helps you do this. Message to you: build a platform. Dust off the blog you haven't touched in years, and sign up for Twitter. Start attending reunions, hang out at the barber shop--but not mine, I've got dibbs.

Thanks again for your attention, I appreciate it. Don't forget to share the link with someone you don't like, and come visit me on Facebook (Peter Hogenkamp) or Twitter (@phogenkampVT).

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The ten things I learned from a rejected manuscript

Like anyone else who is brave (stupid? crazy?) enough to query literary agents and submit mms upon request, I have racked up my fair share of rejections. In no particular order, here are the ten things I learned from that process. Also, I would not be where I am now today (signed with a wonderful agent) without all those Rs.

1) My ms was rejected: Translation: I was actually able (despite what my fourth grade teacher said about me) to finish a ms, write a query letter that created some interest, and write well enough that my partial ms generated a request for a full! (I like to start with something positive.)

2) I am not Ernest Hemingway. It is true, I am not, and it is best to learn this early. Flowery or overly stylistic prose is a big turn-off. (Trust me on this one.) The idea of writing is to communicate; the more straight-forward the better. This was a painful lesson for me; because I love stylistic writing. But most readers do not. Believe it or not, this has been studied. Having said that, a little style goes a long way. Every time I need a reality check (usually on the hour) I go back and look at my first ms and compare it with the third! (Smack!)

3) My second ms got rejected by one agent who said he loved my writing but the premise was a deal breaker. The following week another (also very reputable) agent said she loved the premise but she didn't love my writing. Ok, which is it? If you plan to pursue this process, you will simply have to put up with disparities such as this, because they happen. To get past this, you have to throw out the outlying comments and focus on the common denominator.

4)Pacing! Pacing! Pacing! It is isn't my place to instruct you on pacing--and there are many good books, websites, seminars etc. on the issue--but I wanted to point out how important it is. And here's the best part: you can learn pacing by doing a lot of writing, and a lot of reading. The best part of writing a book is that it makes reading books 10 times more enjoyable, because you notice and appreciate things--like pacing--that you hitherto did not. I have heard Dan Brown be torn apart by many writers (jealousy?) but I will tell you this. He understands pacing. And he's living proof that a well-paced book with a good premise sells. (Think DaVinci code!)

5) Transition. (It's hard!) Simply put, encouraging the reader to go the next scene/chapter. As with pacing, 1) I have no business telling you how to do it 2) it's important and 3) you can learn by reading and writing. By way of a suggestion, read Daniel Silva. Daniel writes international thrillers about a art restorer/spy named Gabriel Allon. Daniel writes well. Period. And he is a master of transitioning one scene into the next. Read The Kill Artist (first of the series) and you will know what I mean--and you will thank me for the introduction.

Once again, thanks for your time. Please share the link with anyone you want, and follow/request me on Facebook/Twitter if you can. (@phogenkampVT) I will post again in a few days. I have enjoyed the comments, so keep em coming.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sunday, April 21, 2013

How I got my agent. (And how you can get one too!) Part three

In my five year process of querying agents, I read many tweets, posts and threads, many very helpful. The most common underlying theme? Persistence. I know of no one who succeeded right from the word go. With the exception of someone like Hillary Clinton--who has a huge demand for her book before she writes word one--it is a process. In my case, it was a process that lasted over five years.

Five years before I signed with Liz Kracht (and let me say I wish every writer gets the chance to work with agent as good to work with as Liz) I got my first rejection (R). I had sent three query letters out to agents I had researched, and received one request for the first fifty pages. The agent liked the first 50, and requested the full. After three weeks of me trying to imagine what the cover of my best-selling book would like, I got the dreaded R, a form letter saying "not for me." (You are going to learn to loathe that comment, trust me!) I was disappointed, of course, but by the time I returned from a long hike I had accepted the R as part of a process. Ok, my full was rejected, but at least the query had hooked one partial request, and the partial had hooked a full. I was NOT back to square one. The process had begun.

Over the next year, I queried and submitted off and on, stopping when I got some feedback I could use to revise the query or the mms. (Not all feedback is usable. I would like to discuss this in a future post, but suffice it to say that when several agents say the same thing, you best pay attention.) The biggest problem I had was lack of feedback, the dreaded form R. The problem with the form R is that it could mean anything from: 1) I really don't represent this genre (despite what it says in Agent Query or Query Tracker) 2) I liked the mms but it is very similar to one on my list 3) your writing makes me want to gouge out me eyeballs 4) you are a good writer but this project lacks promise.

The way around is to query widely, and save in a separate file all the helpful rejections, because those agents saw something in your mms that spurred them to take the time to send a helpful note, short though it may have been. Several years ago, during the process for my second mms, I made a major revision and sent it back to the above agents with a polite note explaining that they had reviewed and passed on the mms previously, would they be interested in seeing a revision. (Take note: this is not a business where gimmicks or trickery play a role. Be honest, concise and polite at all times.) Many will not be interested, but some will. And even if the interested ones ultimately pass again--they likely will--you will likely learn a good deal about where your mms goes lacking. Is it pacing? (If it is your first mms, I will bet pacing is at least part of the problem.) Flat characters that don't come to life? (Also likely with mms #1) Too many adjectives and adverbs? (Sure sign of a neophyte!) An overdone theme?

Whatever it is, you have to be woman or man enough to listen and accept. The process does not move forward unless you can LISTEN and ACCEPT! I am not suggesting this is easy: you pour your heart and soul into something as intimate as writing, and all anyone points out is the negatives. But that's the way of it. They may be telling you that you need to move on. This was the conclusion I came to after a year and a half of querying/submitting my first mms. When all was said and done, the collective wisdom of over a dozen agents said: You can write, but this mms isn't going anywhere. (Some actually told me to scrap it, move on, and submit my next mms to them.)

So, I scrapped it--but I was along way from square one. I had moved well into the process, and in my next post I will talk about all the things I learned from writing a mms that didn't make it out my desk drawer (where it belongs.) Thanks again for those of you who wrote me with comments or requests for more. Once again, I am on Twitter (@phogenkampVT) and Facebook as Peter Hogenkamp.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How I got my agent! (And how you can get yours!) Part 2

I ended my last post by saying you need to change the way an agent reads your manuscript. Take it from me--the man of many rejections--if the agent is looking for a reason to reject, she is going to find it. The question is: How do you change the agent's mindset? (Don't try mailing a box of homemade chocolate chip cookies; it doesn't work!)

Writing is and always will be primarily about the writing. The first and best way to change an agent's mindset is to create perfect prose. And then you have to sustain it for the entire manuscript, not just the first 50 pages you have gone over and over and over. The great majority of writers fall short in this regard. (After all, how many Hemingway's are there?) But don't despair; all of my favorite writers are in this less than perfect category.

So, if you don't have perfect prose, can you still snag an agent? The answer is yes, of course, as long as your writing is strong. A strong manuscript is an absolute prerequisite; you will get nowhere without one. But a strong manuscript is still very likely to be rejected, because the agent is still reading it with intent to reject. The situation is similar to the dilemma faced by an admissions officer at a highly selective college, staring at 20 strong applications for every one spot--only in this case the numbers are far worse. You need something else, and that something else is NOT floral stationary or a picture of your dog--unless your dog is cuter than mine, which is unthinkable.

Getting back to business, the best way to change an agent's mindset is to get to know her, and get her to know you. (In other words, build a relationship of some sorts with them.) Plain and simply, it is much easier to turn down someone you don't know. The easiest way to do this is to attend a conference. If you haven't gone to at least one or two, start the search for one as soon as you have finished this blog. I met several agents at the first conference I attended back in November of 2007, and I still e-mail several of them on an occasional basis. And while none of these agents offered to represent me, the information I got from them was invaluable.

Why is a relationship so important? If the agent reading your manuscript likes you, she will be seeking to find merit in your work. Remember that an agent works closely with a writer over an extended period of time, and finding someone easy to work with is a must. So, go to a conference, and leave your inner wallflower at home. Take advantage of the opportunity to meet these folks who have, after all, come there to find writers. And you don't have to be a charge to the front of the line person, either. In a three day conference, your opening will happen, perhaps at a cocktail hour after a day's sessions, or during a break in between discussions. (No bathroom stalking please!) And don't start by spitting out the 20 second pitch you have been practicing. The time for that will come--don't force it. That's why I like the cocktail hour approach. The relaxed, informal atmosphere lends itself to you being you--but be careful of too much alcohol. You might think drinking three gin and tonics makes you funnier than Rick Reilly, but nobody else will.

But there are other--less expensive and time-consuming--ways to change an agent's mindset, and I will discuss them next post. By the way, I can be found on twitter at @phogenkampVT, and on Facebook as Peter Hogenkamp. Thanks for your view!

Monday, April 15, 2013

How I got my agent! (And how you can get one too!)

I finally did it! After nine years of writing, three manuscripts, and five years of sending queries to literary agents, I finally got the contract for which I have been waiting. (And, yes, it was just as sweet as I had hoped.) But that's not why I am writing this. I am writing because I think I learned a few things along the way that might help someone else navigate through the treacherous waters of the agent-finding process.

When I say treacherous, I mean emotionally treacherous; to my knowledge, no would-be author has ever lost an eye in the process--although I wouldn't rule it out entirely. I have met a good few agents, and to a person they were all genuine, nice people. But they are nice, BUSY people, and therein lies the problem. Despite the fact that many agents still utilize the slush pile to help fill their lists, it is a mixed blessing at best. On average, an agent slogs through hundreds (thousands?) of queries to sign just one client. If you follow a few agents on Twitter--and you should--you will see how they feel about their in-box.

I say this because you need to understand the disparate perspectives held by either side of the process. A query that represents two or three years of effort--and sometimes many more--may be deleted after less than 30 seconds of consideration. (I once received an e-reject in less than 2 minutes after hitting send.) But you have to expect this; everybody gets lots of rejections, especially at the query level. The truly difficult part of the process is at the submission level. The reason behind this is the increase in expectation that naturally follows a request for some or all of the manuscript. Who wouldn't get pumped up to get a request--it is, after all, a validation of your work.

The problem is, the odds are still stacked against you, and you have already gotten your hopes up. Have you ever wondered why an agent only requests a partial manuscript--the first fifty pages or so--when a full manuscript can be sent (by e-mail) just as easily? The answer is expectation management; a request for a partial shows restrained interest, whereas a full request could keep the writer waiting by the phone. (Guilty!) Agents don't want to be dream-killers; they are just trying to make a living, and they do this by selling books to publishers. To do this, they have to read hundreds of manuscripts, which means they are reading your manuscript looking for a reason to REJECT.

The key to getting an agent is to change the way an agent reads your manuscript, from reading with intent to REJECT to reading with intent to ACCEPT. I did it, and you can too. I will explain in the next post.